Top Hats

Silk top hat from Ascot Top Hats
I'm puttin' on my top hat
Tyin' up my white tie..
Dancin' in my tails!

There are some fashion items that never seem to date....then there are some that date but are later retrieved, taking on a whole new style cachet for another generation. Then there are some that date and stay buried, never to return to the limelight or even the low light ever again, despite the fact that in their day, they outshone the rest.

The top hat is one such item - perhaps because it just too formal an item in a society that has largely eschewed dressing-up as an art form and valued convention, in favour of the comfort and convenience of the casual. Mind you, as fashion items go, the top hat is a fairly out-there item.. a trifle silly in its English eccentricity, at least from a contemporary perspective.

The top hat as daywear. A young Winston Churchill struts his stuff.
Where did Top Hats Come From?
Jack Wild as The Artful Dodger
The top hat emerged in Europe somewhere around the latter half of the 18th century. It's towering design offered the wearer an illusion of height and importance and as the century rolled on, it gained momentum as a popular fashion accessory. According to Ascot Top Hats Ltd. the first silk top hat in Britain was made by a Middlesex hatter, George Dunnage, in 1793, although an etching by Hogarth in 1747, reveals the Lord Mayor of London resplendent in his carriage and wearing a top hat.

In historical terms, the top hat enjoyed only a relatively brief period of widespread popularity - longer than leg warmers but shorter than berets, belts and bloomers. True, a top hat can still be found at the odd wedding, special event, magician's show or in the musty wardrobes of nostalgic eccentrics but as a standard item, it had well and truly fizzled by the mid 20th century. Although tops hats have been in existence for 200 years or so, their chief period of popularity ran from the second half of the 18th Century until the end of WWI, though they were still quite commonly worn for formal daywear (weddings, the races etc) until the mid 20th century.

William Orpen's oil portrait of Herbert Bernard John Everett, who looks strangely dark, sexy and mysterious in his top hat.
A Symbol Of the Capitalist Tycoon
The little man, a banker, who in his top hat and tails, graces the graphics of Monopoly boards, is an exemplar of a particular type of top hat wearer  - a cheerfully ruthless capitalist, representing the tycoons of the early 20th Century.

This image was no doubt fostered by the fact that few poor people could avoid to wear anything as luxurious as a silky, lush top hat (although in the 18th century, felt varieties had been worn even by the working classes). Along with fine wines, silk cravats and Cuban cigars, the top hat became an emblem of wealth.

In the Soviet poster below, an  opportunistic American capitalist is portrayed trying to tempt a noble worker with the chattels of capitalism. Note the rolled up North Atlantic Pact (Nato) disguising a rifle.Evidently the poster is meant to signify  a juxtaposition of  "progressive forces with imperialist aggression".

Soviet Poster. Source
Some things Never Change
Did I imply earlier that the top hat was redundant? Wrong. I was forgetting about that powerful British institution..the elite public school. I'm told top hats are still sometimes worn as part of the school uniform by the boys of the upper classes at Harrow and Eton. Pompous affectation or the charming preservation of history and tradition? You decide...

Collapsible top hat