Notoriety and the Topper

The first time the top hat was ever worn in public was in London on the head of John Hetherington in January 1797; and while today this style is refined and stately, the wildness of a tall stove-pipe top hat caused an upheaval in the streets. In barely no time at all, Hetherington drew a large crowd and was subsequently arrested on the spot.

The offense was described as followed: “Hetherington appeared on the public highway wearing upon his head what he called a silk hat … a tall structure having a shining luster, and calculated to frighten timid people. As a matter of fact … several women fainted at the unusual sight, while children began screaming, dogs yelped, and a younger son of Cordwainer Thomas … was thrown down by the crowd which collected and had his right arm broken”. There was so much chaos that the officer grabbed Hetherington by the collar and gave him court summons for “disturbing the public peace”.

It was reported on the front page of The London Times that, “Hetherington’s hat points to a significant advance in the transformation of dress. Sooner or later, everyone will accept this headwear. We believe that both the court and the police made a mistake here.” And so it was born, and with such a ruckus, its no wonder that the top hat came to define the 19th century and continues to be worn today.

It’s easy to see from old photographs and drawings why the nineteenth century is sometimes know as the Century of the Top Hat. Men wore top hats for business, pleasure and formal occasions — pearl gray for daytime, black for day or night. The historian James Laver once made the observation that an assemblage of toppers looked like factory chimneys adding to the mood of the industrial era.

The Top Hat made a massive resurgence in the 1930’s when Fred Astaire brought it back into favor. Virtually all “men of the town” had one in their wardrobe, and dressing in “black tie” always included a Top Hat. Astaire’s influence even  brought the popularity of the Top Hat back to its origins in England and France.

Today, the Top Hat continues to play more a role of “statement”, rather than “costume”. Whereas so many other styles of hats tell a story of a specific era, the Top Hat possesses that timeless quality.  It is steeped in the tradition of both 19th Century Aristocracy, Heyday Hollywood Musical’s, and is still worn today for those very, very special occasions as a contemporary statement of importance and celebration.

Nowadays, Steampunk fashion is influencing a resurgence of the top hat made from leather to felt, vinyl to silk and in an array of shapes, sizes, textures and trims. Rising from relative obscurity, Steampunk has become an extraordinary trend, remixing styles from the Victorian era, classic Goth, gypsy, and industrial fetish to create a unique and beautiful other-worldly, Sci fi adventure look. Steampunk design balances form and function and repositions the top hat to its origin of cutting edge fashion.

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