Austin Lane Crothers, 46th Governor of Maryland (1908–1912)
Nothing symbolizes the height of 19th Century men’s fashion than the top hat. The symbol of respectability, the top hat reigned supreme as the ultimate fashion accessory and at one point was worn by people of every social class, including workmen. The top hat had a tall crown and a short brim that could either be curled or straight and was primarily made primarily from wool, rabbit, or beaver felt. Beaver was especially prized because it was waterproof and warm. However, due to Beaver’s popularity, the supply rapidly diminished during the 1830s (the over-trapping of Beaver was one factor leading to the demise of the “Mountain Man” lifestyle).
As a replacement, silk plush fabric was developed in France during the 1830s and was increasingly used, especially because of its natural shine. The variety of silk plush (sometimes referred to as milliner’s silk plush) used in top hats was a textile with a raised pile or nap that gave a high luster. According to some authorities, silk plush has not been manufactured since the late 1940s thus giving rise to a thriving market in vintage tops hats. Also, the odds of finding a genuine beaver top hat are on the open market are very small and many hats that are marketed as “beaver” are actually made of silk plush (compared to silk plush, beaver is actually duller). Finally, top hats were came two types, a “town weight” and “country weight” which was a more reinforced version (typically worn while riding).
Top Hat, 1885, worn by President Grover Cleveland at his First Inauguration on March 4, 1885; National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution
The specific origins of the top hat are obscure but generally speaking, its origins can be found during the 1780s and 1790s when the earlier “sugarloaf” style was revived. From the 1790s on, men’s hats began to take the form of what would later become the top hat and they were made in a variety of crown and brim shapes. This shift in fashion was especially noticeable in France at the height of the French Revolution when fashions rapidly shifted away from 18th Century fashion which was deemed to be too aristocratic.
Portrait of a Young Man, Francois-Xavier Fabre, 1795 – 1800.
Monsieur Seriziat, J.L. David, 1795.
By the early 1800s, the top hat had established itself as the leading form of men’s hat and they came in a variety of styles (more than the later part of the 19th Century):
Fashion Plate, c. 1810.
During the early to mid 19th Century, top hats went through a number of style trends to include the bell-crown with its curved upper crown and the stovepipe with its tall crown and harrow brim. Below are a few examples:
Top Hat, c. 1820 – 1825, wool fur felt; Philadelphia Museum of Art (1912-216)
Another Bell-Crown Top Hat, c. 1850s
Another example from the 1850s
Top Hat, c. 1855 – 1860; Fashion Institute of Design Museum (2010.5.13)
Gustave Caillebotte, Portrait of Paul Hugot (1878)
By the 1890s, the top hat had taken the form that more or less survives to this day: a relatively low crown with a slightly curved brim:
Men;s Top Hat, c. 1890; Metropolitan Museum of Art (2009.300.6127)
Portrait, c. 1890
Lord Ribblesdale by John Singer Sargent, 1902
And naturally, there was also a special case for transporting one’s top hat when they were not wearing it:
Top Hat Box, c. 1910 (Elekes Andor – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0)
Top hats were also available in a straw version for more warmer climes although this seems to have been more of an early 19th Century style:
Men’s Top Hat, Straw, c. 1820 – 1840; Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (44.199)
By the early 20th Century, wear of the top hat was increasingly limited to formal occasions rather than worn as part of everyday dress and this trend has continued on into the 21st Century.
Advert for silk top hats, 1885.
The top hat is the centerpiece of any man’s formal wardrobe for the late 19th Century and a definite “must-have” for anyone recreating the clothing of this period. We hope you’ve enjoyed this brief tour of the world of top hats. 🙂