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; Prince Harry, The Duke of Kent and the Earl of Wessex at Ascot in 2014, 2012 and 2013
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:
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