Thursday, September 20, 2012

Time Travelers Alert: The Historical History of the Hysterical Top Hat – Part 1

Looking diligently back into The History of Fancy Hats, one can deduce a definite chronological divide between “The Time of TriCorns” and “The Time of Top Hats.” This is important information for Time Travelers, since arriving in the “Time of TriCorns” wearing a Top Hat could be disastrous, as could, of course, the opposite! And top hats have such an interestingly dichotomous lineage – both silly and elegant! Silly because, as we shall see, they have gone through amazing extremes of fashion on their way to becoming the dignified head wear familiar to Upper-Crusteans the world over.

Although their invention is generally attributed to haberdasher George Dunnage in 1793 (more on that in Part II), and thought of by most as an English conception, they can actually be seen in French etchings as early as the 1780's. There had been a hat called a “Capotain” in style since the 1590's (can you imagine a style with 200-year staying power?? Time travelers, take note), which was middlin' tall and slightly conical, with a somewhat narrow brim. We in the U.S. tend to think of them as “pilgrim hats;” they were often adorned with a centered buckle on the hatband.

By the late 1700's, however, the style had been refined and was being worn regularly by French “dandies” - gentlemen fashionistas who were principal driver's of French style at the time. They were not then called “top hats,” but, rather “Paris Beau,” or even just “beaver hats,” since beaver was a favorite hat material, as was silk.

Here's where the story starts tending toward the silly... It would be a gross understatement to say that the late 18th century French aristocracy were quite fond of exaggeration when it came to costume. Think dresses 3 times wider than your body, and powdered wigs half again your own height! The same was true of hats, of course, including the top hat. Well-heeled French Ladies would have the style enlarged and softened, then adorned with everything from bird cages to sailing ships, with plenty of large, fluffy ostrich feathers shoved in all over. The men's hats, were, of course, somewhat less overdone, but those caught up in the movement called “Les Incroiables” (the Incredibles) were, for a time, also seen wearing large floppy versions, as seen in the illustration to the right.

So, you may ask, how did this caricature of what would become the ultimate in distinctive menswear morph into the perfect hat for any special occasion? Stay tuned to Part II for tales of women swooning and screaming, courts, coppers and jail, patents and royalty!

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