Hat Types: The Top Hat

Royal Hats

History: Top hats are thought to have have descended from “sugar loaf” hats, a tall tapered hat with a slightly rounded conical top which were popular during medieval times. Just before the turn of the nineteenth century, silk top hats began appearing in England (the first is credited to Middlesex hatter George Dunnage in 1793). Early top hats were made of felted beaver fur and by 1820, became a popular hat for men of all social classes (including workmen). This popularity increased during the mid 1800s thanks to Queen Victoria’s husband Prince Albert and US President Abraham Lincoln. Until 1914, the top hat remained a standard item of both daytime and evening dress for upper-class men on both sides of the Atlantic.

The World Wars changed this tradition; at the end of World War II, top hats had fallen out of use except for the London banking and stockbroking industry and as part of the uniform in private British boy’s schools (such as Eton College). Today, top hats remain part of a traditional morning suit and we see them at the Epsom and Ascot races, weddings, Buckingham Palace garden parties and other British Royal occasions that require morning dress.

Characteristics: a tall hat with a flat crown. While the crown of a top hat is usually slightly fluted, it may also be straight. Top hats have a slightly curled brim that raises above the wearer’s ears. Trimmings are minimal with a simple band around the crown in silk grosgrain; mourning hats are trimmed  with a black wool mourning band. Royal top hats today are made of silk plush, fur plush, or grey wool felt.

Royals Associated with this Hat Style: Men of the British Royal Family

Prince Philip, May 15, 1980 | Royal Hats Prince Harry, June 19, 2014 | Royal Hats The Duke of Kent, June 20, 2012| Royal Hats The Earl of Wessex, June 19, 2013 | Royal Hats

Prince Philip, May 15, 1980; Prince Harry, The Duke of Kent and the Earl of Wessex at Ascot in 2014, 2012 and 2013

Peter Phillips, June 20, 2014 | Royal Hats Earl of St. Andrews, June 22, 2014 | Royal Hats Duke of York, June 20, 2014 | Royal Hats Prince of Wales, June 17, 2009| Royal Hats Prince Philip, June 20, 2014 | Royal Hats

Peter Phillips, the Earl of St. Andrews, and the Duke of York at Ascot in June 2014;
The Prince of Wales at Ascot in 2009; Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh at Ascot June 20, 2014

There is something very handsome and elegant about a man in a top hat, isn’t there?! While top hats are most often worn by royal men, we occasionally see a top hat variation worn by a royal woman:

2007-05-24 Bradford Police Headquarters opening 2006-03-09 1994-07-14 23 2012-07-29 olympics

Queen Elizabeth, May 24, 2007; Princess Michael of Kent, March 9, 2006;
Sophie Rhys-Jones in July 1994; Zara Phillips Tindall competing at the London Olympics, July 29, 2012

While the top hat is not a common hat style we see on royal ladies, we do see spin off style – the Stovepipe hat – on many female royal heads. We will look at the Stovepipe in greater detail later this week. In the meantime, I am curious to hear your thoughts on top hats. Are they a dapper accessory or a traditional relic that should be retired?

Photos from Anwar Hussein, Chris Jackson, Max Mumby/Indigo, Max Mumby/Indigo, Max Mumby/Indigo, Max Mumby/Indigo, Max Mumby/Indigo, Chris Jackson, and Mark Cuthbert via Getty; Pool via Corbis; Tim Graham, Mark Cuthbert and Alex Livesey via Getty

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27 thoughts on “Hat Types: The Top Hat

      • In terms of formal definitions, a hatter is someone who makes, sells, or repairs hats (any kind of hat) while a milliner is someone involved in the design, manufacture, or sale of hats for women. These days, however, the terms seem to be used interchangeably.

      • I would tend to concur with HatQueen’s definition 🙂 though whilst Hatters can do any hat though predominantly we may specialise in Mens. But Milliners nowdays may do both Mens and Womens, though predominantly specialise for Ladies. But most Hatters I’ve met really do not like to be called a Milliner 🙂 …Often I use a similar difference in another industry to explain the similar concept: A Barber and Hairdresser – Both can cut your hair…. but they tend to specialise between Gentlemen and Ladies.

      • Here in Brazil the technique of handmade hat is dying … We have no more teachers in this art …
        Who that love millinery has few or no resources to carry on the work …
        I for one am in love with Bruton (hat’s Queen) and as much as look for some mold i can not find ….
        Could you direct me to a website, a book that can help me?

  1. Both men and women use top hats with tail coats in higher level dressage competitions and the dressage test of eventing, though also bowler hats and safety helmets are allowed. Helmets are compulsory when rider or horse is young, according to FEI rules. I think that 2012 London Olympic Games were the first Olympics where helmets were used is dressage by some riders, earlier the top hats have been used. There might have been some rule change before 2012 or something.
    Just adding this little piece of info as Zara Phillips is shown in her riding attire here.

  2. I like them on men for formal occasions, as they remind us of times when people dressed more elegantly and took pride in their appearance, rather than dressing in ripped jeans, lumberjack shirts, scruffy sandals, and caps worn backwards. It is hard to make them work on women, except as part of a horse-riding outfit. I think the red hat in the photo of the Queen here works, and I think the secret is not to have the crown too tall, to avoid over-trimming the hat, and to stick to solid color in the hat and outfit. However, it isn’t my favorite hat shape on the Queen, or anyone else.

  3. Men look wonderful in them, but I have never liked them on women. I think the top hat on women was a trend in the 1990’s. Sartorially speaking, IMHO, the top hat and jacket/skirt Sophie wore in 1994 always looked like a costume to me. I need to add that I really like H.R.H. The Countess of Wessex, therefore, I am not just trying to be mean.

    • I think Sophie’s outfit in 1994 was on trend for that time. This was also 5 years before she joined the royal family- her style did change a lot in that time. In some ways, it’s unfair for me to even include this hat and outfit as a royal hat but since there are so few female top hats, I couldn’t overlook this one!

  4. I love seeing a man dressed up and wearing a top hat. For that matter, I like the style for myself. I bought a man’s top hat and wear it, sometimes with a carnation on the band or a wisp of veiling around it.

  5. I like them–they add a sense of formality to an event. In a world increasingly casual, they are a reminder that there are times appropriate for formal attire (and behavior) and a nod to tradition.

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