White silk, or probably beaver, hat, c 1848, from iphotocentral
Below, how did the top hat sink so low?
|Lincoln in his stovepipe at Antietam, 1862|
|"Bill the Butcher", Gangs of New York|
His hat probably would have been glossy black with a flat brim, similar to Mose
|Civil engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel, and below, second from right, at the attempted launch of the steamship Great Eastern, November 1857, via His hat seems a little worse for the wear|
|Ambrotype of two would-be dandies, c.1855. via FIDM|
|A conformateur, a hat-fitting device. See much more at the Musee du Chapeau in Bern|
|The Brighton Swimming and Sea Bathing Club, 1863, via|
|"Modifications of the Beaver Hat"|
|Henry IV of France, 1591-- Top hat progenitor?|
|The Mad Hatter by Sir John Tenniel, 1865/1871, and Uncle Sam by Montgomery Flagg, 1916/17: both wear white or dove beaver toppers in the flared, modified "Wellington" shapes. Uncle Sam would have appeared pretty retro in 1916|
|Ladies in riding habits, c 1900|
|Astaire, making a last hurrah for top hats in the eponymous movie, 1935|
Something that appears similar to a top hat crops up sometime in the very late 16th century. During the 17th century vaguely top hat-like appurtenances called capotains could be found atop Puritans (think "Pilgrim Hat" ) and English Civil War antagonists. I don't really count these.
The style really picks up after the French Revolution when those who kept their heads dared to throw off the powdered wigs and adopt outlandish head gear. (See those crazy Incroyables and Merveilleuses.)
Top hats made from felted beaver fur dominated the 19th century (the industry practically wiped out the beaver). I've always loved the exaggeratedly tall Lincolnian version but the subtleties of this type of hat are myriad. It took on dramatic cylindrical, flared or pegged crowns (rising to over 8 inches in the 1850s); brims could be wide and flat disks, or rolled and swooping. There were even collapsible "Gibus" variants made so everyone could attend the opera without coming to blows.
The top hat steamed its way into the 20th century (by now made of glossy silk plush) and made it through the 1930s retaining most of its dignity. By Kennedy’s 1961 inauguration it was an awkward throwback. And alas, as the 21st century dawned, this once crisp and debonair hat was relegated to Halloween costumes, a few cloying rock guitarists, and legions of Steam Punk aficionados and Comic Con attendees.