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A top hat, beaver hat, high hat, silk hat, cylinder hat, chimney pot hat or stove pipe hat, sometimes also known by the nickname "topper", is a tall, flat-crowned, broad-brimmed hat, predominantly worn by men from the latter part of the 18th to the middle of the 20th century. By the end of World War II, it had become a rarity in ordinary dress, though it continued to be worn in specific instances, such as state funerals, also by those occupying prominent positions in the Bank of England and by certain City stock exchange officials. As of the early 21st century, top hats are still worn at some society events in the UK, notably at church weddings and racing meetings attended by members of the royal family, such as Royal Ascot. They remain part of the formal uniform of certain British institutions, such as Eton College and the boy-choristers of King's College Choir. They are usually worn with morning dress or white tie, in dressage, and as part of servants' or doormen's livery.
The top hat was frequently associated with the upper class, and was used by satirists and social critics as a symbol of capitalism or the world of business. The use of the top hat persisted in politics and international diplomacy for many years, including at U.S. presidential inaugurations, the last being worn at the inauguration of John Fitzgerald Kennedy in 1961. The top hat also forms part of the traditional dress of Uncle Sam, a symbol of the United States, generally striped in red, white and blue.
The top hat is also associated with stage magic, both in traditional costume and especially the use of hat tricks.
According to fashion historians, the top hat may have descended directly from the sugarloaf hat; otherwise it is difficult to establish provenance for its creation. Gentlemen began to replace the tricorne with the top hat at the end of the 18th century; a painting by Charles Vernet of 1796, Un Incroyable, shows a French dandy (one of the Incroyables et Merveilleuses) with such a hat. The first silk top hat in England is credited to George Dunnage, a hatter from Middlesex, in 1793. The invention of the top hat is often erroneously credited to a haberdasher named John Hetherington.
Within 20 years top hats had become popular with all social classes, with even workmen wearing them. At that time those worn by members of the upper classes were usually made of felted beaver fur; the generic name "stuff hat" was applied to hats made from various non-fur felts. The hats became part of the uniforms worn by policemen and postmen (to give them the appearance of authority); since these people spent most of their time outdoors, their hats were topped with black oilcloth.
Between the latter part of 18th century and the early part 19th century felted beaver fur was slowly replaced by silk "hatter's plush", though the silk topper met with resistance from those who preferred the beaver hat. The 1840s and the 1850s saw it reach its most extreme form, with ever higher crowns and narrow brims. The stovepipe hat was a variety with mostly straight sides, while one with slightly convex sides was called the "chimney pot". The style we presently refer to as the stovepipe was popularized in the United States by Abraham Lincoln during his presidency; though it is postulated that he may never have called it stovepipe himself, but merely a silk hat or a plug hat. It is said that Lincoln would keep important letters inside the hat. One of Lincoln's top hats is kept on display at the National Museum of American History in Washington, DC.
During the 19th century, the top hat developed from a fashion into a symbol of urban respectability, and this was assured when Prince Albert started wearing them in 1850; the rise in popularity of the silk plush top hat possibly led to a decline in beaver hats, sharply reducing the size of the beaver trapping industry in North America, though it is also postulated that the beaver numbers were also reducing at the same time. Whether it directly affected or was coincidental to the decline of the beaver trade is debatable.
James Laver once observed that an assemblage of "toppers" resembled factory chimneys and thus added to the mood of the industrial era. 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 the invention of the collapsible top hat.
On May 5, 1812, a London hatter called Thomas Francis Dollman patented a design for "an elastic round hat" supported by ribs and springs. His patent was described as:
An elastic round hat, which "may be made of beaver, silk, or other materials." "The top" of the crown and about half an inch from the top "as well as "the brim and about an inch , the crown from the bottom" are stiffened in the ordinary manner. The rest of the hat "is "left entirely without stiffening," and is kept in shape by ribs of any suitable material "fastened horizontally to the inside of " the crown," and by an elastic steel spring from three to four inches long and nearly half an in. wide "sewed on each side of "the crown in the inside in an upright position." Then packed up for travelling, "the double ribbon fastened under the band is "to be pulled over the top of the crown to keep it in a small "compass."
Some sources have taken this to describe an early folding top hat, although it is not explicitly stated whether Dollman's design was specifically for male or female headgear. Dollman's patent expired in 1825. In around 1840, Antoine Gibus's design for a spring-loaded collapsible top-hat proved so popular that hats made to it became known as gibus. They were also often called opera hats due to the common practice of storing them in their flattened state under one's seat at the opera, though the term can also refer to any tall formal men's hat. The characteristic snapping sound heard upon opening a gibus suggested a third name, the chapeau claque, "claque" being the French word for "slap".
Until World War I the top hat was maintained as a standard item of formal outdoor wear by upper-class males for both daytime and evening usage. Considerations of convenience and expense meant however that it was increasingly superseded by soft hats for ordinary wear. By the end of World War II, it had become a comparative rarity, though it continued to be worn regularly in certain roles. In Britain these included holders of various positions in the Bank of England and City stockbroking, and boys at some public schools. Amongst the Japanese delegation that signed the Japanese Instrument of Surrender on 2 September 1945, the civilian members all wore top hats, reflecting common diplomatic practice at the time.
The top hat persisted in politics and international diplomacy for many years. In the Soviet Union, there was debate as to whether its diplomats should follow the international conventions and wear a top hat. The compromise arrived at was the adoption of a diplomatic uniform with peaked cap for formal occasions. Top hats were part of formal wear for U.S. presidential inaugurations for many years. President Dwight D. Eisenhower omitted the hat for his inauguration, and John F. Kennedy brought the top hat back for his inauguration (though he later became famous for disliking all hats).
Kennedy did it in part to differ from Eisenhower (though Kennedy put the headdress on one side for his swearing in and during his inaugural speech). However, the next president, Johnson, did not wear a top hat for any part of his inauguration in 1964, and the hat has not been worn since for this purpose.
In the United Kingdom, the post of Government Broker in the London Stock Exchange that required the wearing of a top hat in the streets of the City of London, was abolished by the "Big Bang" reforms of October 1986. In the British House of Commons, a rule requiring a Member of Parliament who wished to raise a point of order during a division, having to speak seated with a top hat on, was abolished in 1998. Spare top hats were kept in the chamber in case they were needed. The Modernisation Select Committee commented that "This particular practice has almost certainly brought the House into greater ridicule than almost any other".
Although Eton College has abandoned the top hat as part of its uniform, top hats are still worn by "Monitors" at Harrow School with their Sunday dress uniform. They are worn by male members of the British Royal Family on State occasions as an alternative to military uniform, for instance, in the Carriage Procession at the Diamond Jubilee in 2012. Top hats may also be worn at some horse racing meetings, notably the Epsom Derby and Royal Ascot.
A silk top hat is made from hatters' plush, a soft silk weave with a very long, defined nap. This is rare now, since it is no longer in general production since the 1950s, and it is thought that there are no looms capable of producing the traditional material any more; the last looms in Lyon were destroyed by the last owner, Nicholas Smith after a violent breakup with his brother, Bobby Smith The standard covering is now fur plush or melusine as Christys' calls it. A grey flat fur felt top hat is the popular alternative.
It is common to see top hats in stiff wool felt and even soft wool though these are not considered on the same level as the silk or fur plush or grey felt varieties. The standard crown shape nowadays is the 'semi-bell crown'; 'full bell crowns' and 'stovepipe' shaped toppers are rarer.
Because of the rarity of vintage silk hats, and the expense of modern top hats, the vintage/antique market is very lively, with models in wearable condition typically hard to find; price often varies with size (larger sizes are typically more expensive) and condition.
In the past, top hats were made by blocking a single piece of wool or fur felt and then covering the shell with fur plush. Since the invention of silk plush a new method using gossamer was invented and used up to the present day though the older method is more common for toppers made today.
A town-weight silk top hat is made by first blocking two pieces of gossamer (or goss for short), which is made of a sheet of cheesecloth that has been coated with a shellac and ammonia solution and left to cure for 5 months on a wooden frame, on a wooden top hat block (which is made of several interconnecting pieces like a puzzle so the block can be removed from the shell, as the opening is narrower than tip of the crown) to form the shell. After the shell has rested for a week in the block, the block is removed and the brim (made of several layers of goss to give it strength) is attached to the crown. The shell is coated with a layer of shellac varnish and also left for a further week. The silk plush is then cut to the correct pattern. The top and side pieces are sewn together; the side piece having an open diagonal seam. It is then eased over the shell carefully and then ironed (the heat of the iron melting the shellac for the plush to stick to it). The upper brim is also covered with a piece of silk plush or with silk petersham (a ribbed silk). The underbrim is covered with merino cloth. After the hat has fully rested, the brim is curled and bound with silk grosgrain ribbon, and a hat band (either silk grosgrain with or without a bow, or a black wool mourning band without a bow) is installed. Finally, the lining and the leather sweatband are carefully hand-stitched in.
The construction can vary; reinforced toppers sometimes called "country-weight" included greater layers goss used to provide a strengthened hat that was traditionally suitable for riding and hunting, though it may not always conform to modern safety standards.
The modern standard top hat is a hard, black silk hat, with fur now often used. The acceptable colours of hats are much as they have traditionally been, with "white" hats (which are actually grey), a daytime racing colour, worn at the less formal occasions demanding a top hat, such as Royal Ascot, or with a morning suit. In the U.S. top hats are worn widely in coaching, a driven horse discipline as well as for formal riding to hounds.
The collapsible silk opera hat, or crush hat, is still worn on occasions, and black in colour if worn with evening wear as part of white tie, and is still made by a few companies, since the materials, satin or grosgrain silk, are still available. The other alternative hat for eveningwear is the normal hard shell.
The British-American musician Slash has sported a top hat since he was in Guns N' Roses, a look that has become iconic for him. Panic! at the Disco's Brendon Urie is also a frequent wearer of top hats. He has been known to wear them in previous live performances on their Nothing Rhymes with Circus tour and in the music videos, "The Ballad of Mona Lisa" and "I Write Sins Not Tragedies". Top hats have also become ubiquitous among the steampunk subculture, often adorned with goggles and feathers.
The members of the "Inner Circle" of the Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania Groundhog Club wear top hats on February 2 of every year when they perform the Groundhog Day ceremonies with Punxsutawney Phil.
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