Thursday, September 20, 2012

Time Travelers Alert: The Historical History of the Hysterical Top Hat – Part 3

Of course, the London Times was correct in their prognostication. By mid-nineteenth century the top hat was ubiquitous at every level of English society, from the lowly chimney sweep to the gentry, and had made its way to the U.S. as well. During the first half of the century there was still a bit of exaggeration involved (witness the “stovepipe” hat favored by U.S. President Abraham Lincoln; stovepipe hats could be as tall as 8” or 9”). But in later decades the height slowly descended to the now-standard five to 6.5 inches, while the top of the hat broadened slightly, giving a more “nipped-in” or tailored look.
For a time in the Victorian era, top hats were actually mandatory for certain lines of work, such as doormen and carriage drivers. Wikipedia state that in some cases it was even “worn daily for formal wear, such as in London at various positions in the Bank of England and City stockbroking, or boys at some public schools.
In 1829, London's Home Secretary Sir Robert Peel initiated a new police force (called “Peelers” at the time) whose uniform consisted of blue tail-coats and top hats, no doubt adding to the perceived “authority” of the headwear. Sir Roberts' variously instituted police forces eventually rendered London's famous “Bobbies,” sans the top hats (but incorporating another awesome hat-type, the pith helmet)!

It's commonly known that by the early 20th century top hats were the very pinnacle of formal attire. High-end hats owned by the wealthy would be scrupulously cared for, including being packed in special cases when traveling by train, or on steamer ships such as the Titanic.
By the 1920's and '30's top hats were generally confined to solemn occasions, such as weddings and funerals, black-tie events, and the world of entertainment. It is still such fun to watch Fred Astaire dance in his top hat and tails!
Unbeknownst to many in our modern age of tablets that aren't pills, mice that don't eat cheese and monitors that aren't lizards, though, top hats are actually seeing somewhat of a resurgence. They are still with us, of course, in their usual guises, worn by prom-goers and pall bearers, carriage drivers and ringmasters.
But they can be seen more and more frequently of late in the newly-growing costume genre called “Steampunk” (also known as “Vernian” or “Neo-Victorian”). These costume hats have really become an art form of their own, coming in all sizes and shapes from exaggerated to mini, highly decorated to elegantly simple, and most commonly seen sporting a pair of goggles!

So, why not surprise your friends by showing up in a top hat at your next formal event? Or, even better, play along with the theme next time you go to an old fashioned fair or reenactment!

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