The Top Hat


Is there any more eloquent creation to put on ones head than the Top Hat? From the dawn of man, when cave dwellers put animal furs on their heads for the purpose of protecting them from the elements -- to the twenty-first century, where men wear baseball caps backwards for… well… for no explainable purpose whatsoever, there has never been a style that has lasted so long, continued to be seen as so cool, or continues to be worn with such sophisticated pleasure as the absolute ULTIMATE in high fashion: the Top Hat! I dare anyone to put one on the right way (which is to wear it tilted forward and to one side, and no more than 10 degrees in either direction), and not suddenly feel taller, handsomer, more suave and svelte. And it’s impossible to wear a Top Hat without suddenly standing straight and confident with a worldly urbane smile as if you posses a grand delightful secret. Though of course the one man in the history of the world who was born to wear a Top Hat is Fred Astaire… and in fact, my theory is that since he first burst on the screen, we all wear top hats now in the hopes that we too can, just for a moment, magically inherit his charm, class, way with the ladies, and ability to literally float around a ballroom… actually, historically speaking, the first real true imprint of the Top Hat, or as scholars would say, “das entscheidende” of Top Hat chic came about after the unveiling of John Singer Sargent’s famous portrait of Lord Ribblesdale in 1902. 

The painting is a study in refined self-assurance, which is exactly the attitude the top hat was intended to convey. This is the hat, after all, that inspired the expression "high hat" as a designation of arrogance and snobbishness. Ribblesdale himself was the epitome of the Edwardian aristocrat; he was master of the backhands and lord-in-waiting to Queen Victoria. The hat that sat so perfectly on his head was the hat that dominated the nineteenth century. 

This was a surprise to everybody, because his top hat caused a riot the first time it was seen in London. The perpetrator was a haberdasher name John Hetherington, who designed it, made it and was the first person to wear it into the street. According to a contemporary newspaper account, passersby's panicked at the sight. Several women fainted, children screamed, dogs yelped, and an errand boy’s arm was broken when he was trampled by the mob! Hetherington was hauled into court for wearing "a tall structure having a shining luster calculated to frighten timid people." It was much ado about nothing, really; Hetherington had merely concocted a silk-covered variation of the contemporary riding hat, which had a wider brim, a lower crown, and was made of beaver. There was initial resistance to Hetherington’s silk topper from those who wanted to continue wearing beaver hats. But in 1850 Prince Albert started wearing top hats made of "hatter’s plush" (a fine silk shag), and that effectively settled the questions; coincidentally it also all but wiped out the beaver-trapping industry in America. 

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 chimney’s and thus added to the mood of the industrial era. The height and contour of the hat fluctuated with the decades. In England, post-Brummel dandies went in for flared crowns and swooping brims. Their counterparts in France, known as the Incroyables, wore top hats of such outlandish dimensions that there was no room for them in overcrowded cloakrooms until Antoine Gibus came along in 1823 and invented the collapsible opera hat. Later on, the American financier J. P. Morgan approached the same problem from another angle; he ordered a limousine with an especially high roof so he could ride around without taking his hat off. A milestone of a different sort was achieved in 1814 by a French magician named Louis Comte; he became the first conjurer on record to pull a white rabbit out of a top hat! 

Of course 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 “black tie” always meant that a Top Hat was included. Astaire’s influence even brought the popularity of the Top Hat back to its origins in England and France. They were also watching all those Hollywood Musical’s, and simply assumed that all American’s were wearing Top Hats for a night out! So, predictably, they too demanded a Top Hat as part of their evening wear. It’s interesting that in his day, all leading men would be photographed with a Top Hat, even those usually associated more with a horse and badge, rather than a limo and carnation in their label. It was a way of showing their “other side”… the modern classy gentlemen. And this is still true today!

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, even when they make a comeback (think of Indiana Jones’ Fedora), the Top Hat seems to be timeless. Even though it is steeped in the tradition of both 19th Century Aristocracy and in Heyday Hollywood Musical’s, it is still worn today for those very, very special occasions as a contemporary statement of importance and celebration. 

Yes, the Top Hat it is timeless, classy, shows both power and wealth, even independence… and an unbendable spirit… which is why even our very own favorite “Uncle” wears one!

Baron Hats has been one of the première Top Hat makers for many years making literally hundreds of different styles of Top Hats for every conceivable situation. Recently we created special top hats for Disney’s motion picture “The Haunted Mansion”, as well as for Madonna’s most recent video. And when the musical made Top Hats a thing of beauty on top of beautiful women dancers, we found ourselves creating many versions for them as well. In fact, we recently created a special top hat for Catherine Zeta Jones and her dancers for her special musical tribute to her husband Michael Douglas for his American Film Institute Lifetime Achievement Tribute (check out our "Media Section" to see her heartfelt Top Hatted musical number).

We are proud to be able to offer to you, not only the original classic collapsible Top Hat, made to the exact specification of the original collapsible Top Hat the Frenchmen Antoine Gibus invented, and virtually impossible to find hand-made anywhere in America, but we also offer the classic standard "Criterion" style, the gray "Aplomb" gray "day hat", along with a series of amazingly Fanciful Top Hats for virtually all occasions!

(I would like to give a very special “tip of the hat” to the legendary hat and fashion historian John Berendt. I shamelessly borrowed some of his magnificent prose on the history of Top Hats in order to more accurately tell you this high hat tale!) 

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