From my regular series of Design Icons written for ABC RN Blueprint. You can find others on my main page and also on the Blueprint and Podcasts pages.
The top hat was broadcast on the 29th January 2022. You can listen to the audio here.
You’d be hard pressed to come up with a more ridiculous fashion item than the top hat. And yet, as silly fashions go, it’s somehow survived for over two centuries.
Its origin is uncertain. Most fashions emphasise a particular line, from crinolines to cod pieces, and it’s entirely likely that the first top hat was the answer to a customer’s simple request to look taller. Why else would you place a cylindrical hat on your head if not to add to your height? According to one tale, when milliner George Dunnage in London released his first top hat to the world in 1793 it caused a riot, which seems surprising given people hadn’t long stopped wearing powdered wigs of ludicrous design. By the end of the 19th century, though, the top hat was ubiquitous, as popular with dukes as relatively ordinary folk. In Britain, it was popularised by Beau Brummel, the original dandy about town, who made it a jaunty favourite of his friend’s, the relentlessly vain future King George the Fourth. Across the channel in France, the hat found friends with a group of subversive toffs called the Incroyables, or Incredibles, who wore bizarre outfits to counter the austerity imposed after the French Revolution. It was not uncommon for them to wear top hats of twice the height of any other and in a variety of loud colours.
The hat itself was first made from a single piece of wool shaped on a wooden mould and then covered with a fine fur felt. By the middle of the nineteenth century they were often made in two pieces, using cheesecloth that was stiffened with layers of shellac and then covered in fur felt. Making this felt involved mercury, which caused terrible afflictions to hat makers, including mental disturbance, hence the Mad Hatter in the Alice in Wonderland tales. In 1840, a French milliner called Antoine Gibus came up with a spring-loaded version called a gibus that gentlemen could remove and flatten when at the opera.
The fashion for them was unstoppable. The engineering genius Isambard Kingdom Brunel was only five feet tall and so a top hat added to his self-confidence, but American president Abraham Lincoln was well over six feet and still favoured what was popularly called in America a stovepipe hat. It’s said that he kept important papers in it, and that it was once holed by a would-be assassin’s bullet some years before an assassin with better aim completed the job. The height of top hat fashion is best illustrated by the Belle Époque paintings of Toulouse-Lautrec but it slowly fell from fashion in the twentieth century as a more classless society began to assert itself. Fred Astaire made the top hat glamorous in the 1934 film of the same name, as did Marlene Dietrich in the film ‘Morocco’ of 1930, adding to her dangerous appeal, but the top hat’s days were numbered. Increasingly relegated to formal weddings, funerals and race courses, they became, like the bowler hat, a cartoonish symbol of the past. Perhaps it started in 1957 with the release of Dr Seuss’s The Cat in the Hat, with its wonky red-and-white striped top hat. By the 1960s, the top hat had been appropriated by rock-stars in jeans and Afghan coats. And so it’s continued, still glamorous in a Madonna video or dressed up with feathers by Elton John but seen for what it really always was – part of a costume. A silly thing. A ridiculous thing. But an icon of style, no question. And no one can pull a rabbit out of a hat quite like it.