Thursday, September 20, 2012

Time Travelers Alert: The Historical History of the Hysterical Top Hat – Part 2

By 1797 the top hat had made its way to England, the Aristocratic French and the well-to-do English perpetually racing to outdo each other as fashion plates. The Dandy movement, too, was just as popular in England, the chief model of which was Mr. George Bryan “Beau” Brummel, a man who was reportedly famous for not wearing a wig (somebody decided to put a tax on wig powder!) and for, well... being famous! And although the trend in England did not involve hyperbolic hats or skirts as wide as church doors, it did involve specific modes of style, including men's corsets, to achieve just that perfect air of insouciance and laissez-faire. However popular the style (including the top hat) may have been amongst the gentry, though, it was apparently not equally well received in all locales, as we shall see.
As noted in Part I, hatter George Dunnage of Middlesex County is generally credited with the “invention” of the top hat in 1793. (Of course, we Futurians are now the wiser, knowing as we do that the French were wearing them at least a decade earlier!) What Mr. Dunnage actually did was patent it – a very smart gentleman, indeed. Curiously, about a century later, an article printed in an English publication, “The Hatter's Gazette,” told the tale of turbulent events surrounding the appearance of the “first” top hat in London. One would think that people residing in the heart of London would be somewhat less insular, but here's where the tale gets really silly, a few decades before the hat came to be the height of elegance.
The report was of poor John Hetherington, out for a promenade one day when he inadvertently caused not just a “stir” but nearly a riot in what one would have assumed was a “fashionable” district of London called “The Strand.”
Apparently there were women screaming and fainting. Dogs barking and children crying. Fear, confusion and flying fruit. Horses bolting and crowds surging (there is even a report of one boy's arm being broken as a result)! Quite the ruckus! All just because Mr. Hetherington decided to take a leisurely stroll down the thoroughfare wearing his shiny new Top Hat.
Evidently the constabulary was called in to calm things down and take Mr. Hetherington off to court. There, in lieu of jail, he was fined 500 Pounds (the equivalent of $30,000 today) for a “Breach of the Peace,” with one officer stating, “Hetherington had such a tall and shiny construction on his head that it must have terrified nervous people. The sight of this construction was so overstated that various women fainted, children began to cry and dogs started to bark. One child broke his arm among all the jostling.” Eventually the story made the front page of the London Times, which stated, “Hetherington’s hat points to a significant advance in the transformation of dress. Sooner or later, everyone will accept this headwear. We believe that both the court and the police made a mistake here.” It was also recorded that a law was passed against wearing such hats because they “frightened timid people.”
Despite Mr. Hetherington's escapade, however, it wasn't long before top hats were not just "all the rage" in England, but were sometimes even required headwear, as we shall see in Part 3.

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