No hat projects a sense of formality and authority like a top hat. Straight and stiff, these tall, felt hats with flat tops, circular crowns, and narrow rims evolved from postilions, which were popular in the Renaissance and had pointed crowns. The French called such hats Rubens while the English called them Rembrandts, both references to their predominance in paintings of that period.
By the late 18th century, country gentleman out for an afternoon horseback ride wore top hats similar to those we know today. Like many hats of that period, these were made of beaver felt, but in 1790 the first silk plush top hat made its debut on the streets of London. The wearer was a hatter named John Heatherington, and his hat created such a stir that he was cited for “frightening timid people” and was obliged to post bond in order to stay out of jail.
A few years later, in 1793, a Middlesex hatter named George Dunnage made a top hat out of silk shag, a type of plush. To give the hats body, a felt underlay was added to the hat’s construction—shellacked gossamer, which reduced the weight of the hats and gave them extra stiffness, were common by the mid-1800s.
During these decades, the top hat changed little, an exception being the Wellington, which was a type of top hat with concave sides that was popular in some circles during the 1820s and ’30s. Mostly, though, the crowns just kept getting taller.
One of the hat’s most famous customers was Abraham Lincoln, who favored stovepipes, as the tallest top hats were often called, for formal occasions. It’s rumored that the President also used his hat as a briefcase, securing important papers to its insides. Meanwhile, magicians reveled in what they could hide (or appear to hide) inside their top hats (white rabbits), while authors such as Lewis Carroll created top-hat-wearing characters like the Mad Hatter.
Through the century, top hats remained popular with equestrians, men and women, and would remain so even into the 1920s. Female riders often wrapped the bottoms of their hats with a sheer silk scarf, for reasons that probably ranged from modesty to eye protection.
It’s no accident, then, that J. M. Flagg’s famous World War I recruiting poster featured a version of Uncle Sam wearing a top hat. By then the hat had become an unquestionable symbol of power and authority. But appeals to patriotism aside, the hat was soon also associated with less stirring forms of power, such as the greed of tycoons and fat cats. Top hat sales tumbled as men embraced straw hats and fedoras and women took to the cloche...
The top hat reclaimed some respectability in 1935 with the release of “Top Hat,” a Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers film that gave audiences numbed by the poverty of the Great Depression a peek at the good life enjoyed by swells dancing cheek to cheek in top hats and tails.
By the 1960s, the top hat returned again. This time it was worn by Willy Wonka, who is depicted on the 1964 first-edition cover of Roald Dahl’s children’s book “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” in a stovepipe that would have made Honest Abe blush.
Even the Grateful Dead’s Jerry Garcia donned one—he was famously photographed in the Haight-Ashbury saluting the camera in a red, white, and blue top hat. Mick Jagger of the Rolling Stones, Marc Bolan of T. Rex, and Slash of Guns N’ Roses are just a few of the other rock stars who have employed the top hat to great theatrical effect.