History of The Top Hat
The first top hat was thought to have been invented by a hatter. The other story was it had been invented in Canton in about by a wealthy Frenchman who eagerly carried his head-piece back to Paris. In the eighteenth century beaver felt was much preferred in the making of the very finest top exclusive hats. They used a process called “carotting” where by coarse hairs were plucked from the beaver pelt and coated with a solution of mercury nitrate. Subsequently the workers inhaled the fumes and it gave them brain damage. It was from this, the saying “as mad as a hatter” came about.
The Silk Top Hat
In 1797 a fellow by the name of John Hetherington, a hatter from Charing Cross appeared in the Strand in what he called a silk top hat, a tall structure having a shiny lustre made from a material called hatter’s plush. He apparently caused a riot, was promptly arrested and fined, the sum, of which was said to have been £500. Silk top hats were slow to be accepted in the early part of the 19th century and it was only in the 1840’s and 1850’s that silk top hats saw their heyday when Prince Albert started wearing his from 1850.
The final depletion of the American beaver in the mid 19th century ushered in the reign of the silk top hat, making it not only a fashion accessory but a symbol of respectability.
Silk top hats had to be meticulously maintained as they do to this day. The silk plush has to be brushed then buffed with a small velvet pad called a mouse, which ensures the lustre of the silk is kept shiny. In the mid 19th century it was considered the norm for dapper young gentlemen to visit their hatter’s on a daily basis to have their toppers ironed.
Silk Top Hat Styles
The Wellington shape with its concave sides to the crown were very popular in the 1820’s and 1830’s when its curves echoed the rounded lapel and pouter pigeon chest of the fashionable frock coat.
The Cumberland black silk top hats were tall and narrowing towards the top and resembled the tapered crowns of women’s hats of the period. A very short version was worn throughout the mid nineteenth century and was identified with the yeoman farmer.
The heights and names of silk top hats are somewhat interesting. They were called round hats, silkers and even toppers, a name still used today. There was a John Bull, that stood 5 3/4 inches high, a Stovepipe at 7 inches, a Chimney Pot at 7 1/2 inches and a Kite High Dandy which measured a colossal 7 3/8 inches.
The opera hat, better known as the Gibus after its inventor, was produced in 1840. It was made of fine corded silk over a metal framework which sprung open at the flick of the wrist, normally worn or carried under ones arm when going to the opera.
They are sometimes found in old toy boxes in attics, but one see’s them most commonly today at Royal Ascot and even in the Royal Enclosure, on the heads of poor unfortunates who really don’t know any better.
Another important part of the mid 19th century was the invention of the conformateur, for the made to measure trade by a chap called Maillard, of Paris. It was shaped like an enormous top hat and was used for measuring customer’s heads, where it mapped the contours exactly, recording them precisely to scale on a card. A method that is still used to this day at The Top Hat Shop. The silk plush that covered these magnificent specimens was produced in the town of Lille in France, throughout the 19th and mid 20th century. Production ceased when the machines that made the silk plush were destroyed after a fierce argument between the two brothers that owned them.
The Silk Top Hat in today’s society
A vintage black silk top hat can be seen at the odd wedding, the Queen’s Garden Party and at Epsom racecourse on Derby Day. However the most auspicious occasion for wearing a silk top hat is at Royal Ascot in the Royal Enclosure, or rather should be.
Over recent years there have been some frightful sights at the Royal Meeting; ill fitting top hats perched on the edges of ears and balanced on the tops of heads. Opera hats and ghastly modern furry things that resemble the cloth of a billiard table. Its a very poor show that one of the last exclusive social occasions should be spoilt by those who don’t know because they haven’t been enlightened by those who do.