Know Your Top Hats

August 22nd, 2012 by

Collectible antique hats come in all varieties, including the perennially popular cowboy hat (I have a Stetson that I plan to give to my granddaughter someday) and the beautiful and often very feathery products of the Victorian and Edwardian eras, arguably the golden ages of ladies millinery.  I’m also a huge fan of the bowlers and derbies, which, as I understand, are making an only partially ironic comeback right now. I’m a little excited about this rumor.

But for the moment, let’s take a look at another venerable classic: the top hat. Top hats made their first appearance in paintings and written records during the early 1790’s. It’s possible that something similar in style to the top hat, with a tall cylindrical crown and modest brim, existed in Russia before this time, since certain members of the Russian Imperial army were wearing uniform top hats by 1803.

In the US, the style rose quickly in popularity and by the 1820’s the look was almost universal. The appeal of the top hat is credited to its straight, formal lines, its suggestion of authority, and the fact that it makes the wearer look taller. Until about 1850, the most expensive hats for upper class gentleman were made of beaver fur, and more accessible hats were made of rabbit fur or a kind of felt. Though in truth, many of these “beaver” hats were actually made from the skins of a variety of animals that were being trapped and hunted on the wilderness of the American frontier during this time, like muskrat and fisher. After the 1850’s hats were more often made of “hatter’s plush”, a kind of silk– Possibly because beaver populations were dropping.

By the middle of the 19th century, the top hat had evolved several slight variations including the following:

  • The stovepipe hat: This hat was tall at the crown, with a brim that was flat and perpendicular.
  • The chimney pot: This was similar to the stovepipe, but the cylindrical part of the hat had a convex curvature. Original hats in this elegant style are not easy to find.
  • The ladies riding hat: Women wore top hats for formal or cross country riding. Also known as a “side-saddle hat”, the riding hat has an upward-curving brim. Sometimes you can find these hats with original veils still attached. Ladies hats were often designed with a kind of silk bandeau inside, to hold pinned-up hair together. They were usually manufactured by men’s hat makers rather than ladies milliners.
  • The men’s riding hat: Riding hats for men also typically had an upward curling brim.
  • The opera hat: In 1823, a hat designed by Antoine Gibus appeared on the scene. Top hats were requisite formal wear for a night at the opera during this time, but they impeded the view of the person behind the wearer and they were easily squashed and damaged in cloak rooms. The Gibus hat (or chapeau claque) was a collapsible hat that folded down onto itself via a set of invisible springs. Once collapsed, it could be safely stowed under a seat. The Gibus opera hat is possibly the most delightful gentleman’s hat ever created, as all good magicians know, but there are very few of these in decent condition on the market today.

Top hats had more or less disappeared by the 1920’s, having been replaced by bowlers and fedoras. It’s worth noting that many surviving collectible antique hats that have remained in good condition are in unusually small sizes. A wearably-sized original Gibus hat or Knox ladies riding hat with a veil– if you can find either of these– are top hat treasures, and will probably be priced accordingly.

By Erin Sweeney