When you go about refining your outfit and defining your personal style within the reasonable bounds of Classic Style, the finishing touch is always a hat. You've certainly been used to wearing baseball caps all of your life, and I have introduced you briefly to fedoras and trilbys and other "soft felt" styles of hat in previous installments. But you are not fully dressed without an introduction to the absolute expression of pre-eminent hatting: the Top Hat.
The good old "topper," in various forms, has been worn continuously since the late seventeenth century, and its parallel development and use alongside the Classic Style suit since its inception in the 1830s, ties it inextricably to what we know as the "suit" today. It has admittedly been seen less in the U.S. since the Kennedy presidency, which had attempted to ban male hat-wearing altogether. Succeeding generations are finally shaking off those musty old-fashioned restrictions of the late-twentieth century and are again beginning to wear hats, and with it, the top hat is enjoying a refreshing renaissance. The cutting edge of classic fashion for all ages is all about the top hat; so to dress like a grown up today, it is becoming imperative to own at least one, and preferably more styles, of this type of classic headwear.
First, of course, we need to look at the top hat's history and development. It was originally stiff and rigid, and was designed as a protective helmet when the leisure class went joyriding on horseback. Horseback accidents usually did not, as today, involve lateral collisions at greater than 30 mph, but vertical collisions involving one's cranium and the earth beneath. The hat was thus built to be gradually crushable: as it met the ground before the top of your head, it slowed the moment of impact, thus minimizing damage to you; at the sacrifice, unfortunately, of your hat. It was, in fact, the first vehicular crumple zone, Volvo not having been invented yet.
The crash-helmet origins of the top hat eventually became secondary to its striking appearance: eventually, hats were made in "town weight:" much lighter, but offering proportionately less crash protection. Sort of like the modern motorcycle helmet's relation to the bicyclist's foam Wiffle-helmet, which legislation has forced the hapless bicyclist to wear in an effort to make him look even more ridiculous than he already does.
(It is axiomatic that what the leisure classes wear as sports wear, becomes the next generation working-classes' formal wear. Riding coat and crash helmet thus became top hat and tails. Following the trend through the centuries, this explains why people will get married in a Polo shirt and Dockers today, and if something isn't done soon, your grandchildren will get married completely naked. But I digress.)
Until the 1850s, top hats were largely constructed of felt made of beaver fur. This was replaced by felted silk when beavers were hunted to near-extinction. Felted silk hats became the standard until the aforementioned Kennedy administration in the early 1960s. Soon after, the last person to remember how to make felted silk died off, and the looms fell into disrepair and were destroyed. For the last fifty years, the top hat has either been made of wool felt, rabbit fur felt, or satin.
Most soft hats are make of but one layer of felt, formed over a mold called a block, and steamed into shape. A proper top hat, by contrast, is a highly constructed piece of engineering, either in "country weight" or "town weight." Because it is rigid, it needs to be carefully fitted to the shape of one's head with a hatter's conformature and formillion, not merely sized by circumference. It is constructed of a shell of gossamer: layers of calico fabric proofed in shellac and ammonia. When cured and dry, it takes on the consistency of plywood. The gossamer is formed and shaped on a cylindrical block, the crown is added, and the shape is seamed by heating the gossamer, which softens the shellac and binds the edges together. The brim is built up of further layers of gossamer over a form, covered in felt and edged in silk. When the form is dry, the silk (or fur, or felt) covering is slipped on, and ironed to the gossamer, softening the varnish underneath and binding it in place. The hatband and interior of the hat is added as usual. The "country weight" hat was constructed of two to three times more gossamer than "city weight" hats.
The top hat with which you may be most familiar is the High Silk Hat, which is always worn with formal wear. It is characterized by a high crown, subtly flared, a curled brim, and brushed and polished to an extremely shiny lustre. It is made in the traditional manner, as just described.
A more convenient hat is the Opera Hat. A clever device, it is not rigid and inflexible; indeed, four spring-loaded rods that connect the brim to the crown make it collapsible, folding completely flat for convenience when you will have to store or check your hat at a venue. It typically has a flatter brim, a thinner band, and duller sheen than other top hats, and is made most often of satin.
This is all fine for formal occasions and nights on the town, of course, but for everyday wear, black is unacceptably formal. Formality in top hats is determined by color, size, and sheen: the duller felts (called "drab shell" hats) may be worn in colors for casual use, but the most formal is always black and highly glossy. For day wear, a crown height of four to six inches is standard; for evening wear, six inches or greater.
|Drab shell in dove grey|
|John Bull in brown|
|Melusine low crown in navy|