Today we continue our story of the top hat a little further with a brief look at the opera hat (aka the Gibus or chapeau claque)… 🙂
One interesting version of the top hat was the opera hat. The opera hat was a collapsible version of the standard top hat and was intended to make the hat easier to store, typically underneath one’s seat at the opera, hence the name “Opera Hat.” It is said that necessity is the mother of invention and that certainly applies to the fashion world. As discussed in a previous post, during the 19th Century, the top hat rapidly made a place for itself as being one of the key pieces of men’s formal wear. A symbol of respectability (and especially for a growing middle class), the top hat was worn at all formal social events such as the opera.
However, as noted above, once one had arrived at a formal social event, what was one to do with their hat and especially at an event such as an opera or other theatrical performance- holding a top hat in one’s lap can be awkward. One could try to put it underneath their seat but there was the risk of the hat being crushed or dented (or simply not fitting). Of course many venues provided cloak rooms but even then, one ran the risk of having their hat crushed or dented. Also, dealing with one’s top hat could be a problem when getting into a covered carriage with a low ceiling.
In the case of the top hat, the solution was somewhat obvious- find a way to collapse the crown. One solution was devised in 1812 by a hatmaker in England named Thomas Francis Dollman who patented an “elastic round hat” in which the sides of the crown were made of a thinner material than the top or brim. A steel spring was sewn into each side of the crown and the hat was fitted with ribbons so that it could be held in a collapsed position. Dollman’s patent expired in 1825 and it would appear that his invention never took hold, at least when it came to top hats.
The next step came in 1834 when a Parisian hatmaker named Antoine Gibus applied for a patent for what was described as a chapeau mècaniques in which the top hat was fitted with a hinged frame so that the crown would collapse and the top of crown would become flush with the brim. With this design, the wearer would have to manipulate the frame open and closed- there was no spring action. Subsequently, on November 30, 1837 Gabriel Gibus (Antoine’s brother) filed a patent for an improved version that included a spring mechanism (from what information I was able to glean, it appears that a series of patents were filed).
With the spring mechanism, the hat could now be opened quickly and because of the distinctive “snap” the hat made, it was often referred to as chapeau claque. The usefulness of the collapsable top hat, or opera hat, was self-evident and it became popular (although there were a few hold-outs 🙂 ). Starting in the 1850s, several more patents were filed by the Gibus family and they became wealthy from the royalties paid for their invention.
Below are some x-ray pictures that show the mechanical workings of the hat:
And here are some more examples:
Functioning vintage opera hats are available today but many of them are in fragile condition and not really suitable for wear. Reproductions, or rather new ones, are available from specialty hatmakers but they are not cheap.
We hope that you’ve enjoyed this little diversion into the world of opera hats and while getting one is not on the top of my “must have” list, it’s certainly a tempting possibility. 🙂