Top Hats and Tails

Top Hats and Tails

As clotted cream is to scones, top hats are to morning suits, and although not all formalwear occasions require one, the top hat is the perfect way to bookend an elegant ensemble. Now, if you are attending the Royal Enclosure at Royal Ascot, then a top hat is absolutely essential for entry, no two ways about it! The hat has a rich history that interestingly mirrors societal shifts in fashion, class, and culture. From its controversial debut in the late 18th century to its revered status in the 19th century, the top hat might be something of a quirky sartorial relic these days, but it was once the very height of style. 

Its origins trace back to the 1790s, when its precursor was a collapsible two-cornered hat  called a "chapeau bras." The transition to the topper was catalysed by a man called George Dunnage, a hatter from Middlesex, who is widely credited with creating the first silk top hat in 1793. However, it was John Hetherington, another London hatter, who brought the top hat into the public eye when, according to legend, Hetherington's first public appearance in a top hat in 1797 caused such a commotion that he was fined for disturbing the peace! Reports claim that his tall, structured hat caused panic, with onlookers allegedly fainting and horses bolting. Despite this sensationalised account, Hetherington's headgear quickly caught on with the fashion-forward elite. Perhaps they felt the topper brought them closer to god, or further away from the serfs?! Either way, they ran with it.

 
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By the early 19th century, the top hat had become a symbol of wealth and social status. Its tall, cylindrical shape and brimmed design set it apart from previous headwear styles. Made from beaver fur felt, the top hat's smooth, glossy finish was both a practical choice for durability and a marker of luxury.


The Industrial Revolution played a significant role in the top hat's rise. Advances in manufacturing allowed for more consistent and refined hat production, making it accessible to Britain's burgeoning middle class. The hat's association with respectability and authority made it a staple in the wardrobes of businessmen, politicians, and professionals, being a quick and easy way to disguise ill-repute!

The Victorian era marked the golden age of the top hat. Throughout the 19th century, the hat evolved in shape and height, reflecting changes in fashion and society's preferences. The "stovepipe" top hat, popularized by figures like Abraham Lincoln, featured a particularly tall and straight-sided design. Meanwhile, the "opera hat" or "Gibus," a collapsible version invented by Antoine Gibus in 1823, became a practical choice for gentlemen attending evening events, as it could be flattened and stored conveniently.

During this period, the top hat became an essential part of formal attire. It was worn at a wide range of occasions, from daytime city wear to evening balls and weddings. The hat's association with the upper echelons of society was cemented by its presence at prestigious events such as Royal Ascot and state functions.


The 20th century brought significant changes in fashion, with the top hat gradually falling out of everyday use. The rise of more casual styles, along with the upheavals of the World Wars, contributed to its decline. By the mid-20th century, the top hat was largely reserved for specific formal occasions, such as weddings, state ceremonies, and certain cultural traditions. Despite its reduced prevalence, it remains an enduring symbol of elegance and a nostalgic homage to a bygone era of sartorial splendour. We love wearing them here at Favourbrook and have a stunning black fur felt style made for us by legendary London Hatmaker Christy's, which can be personalised with a lining of your choice.

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