The top hat

We all know hats come in different shapes and sizes throughout history, depending on era and one´s social status. Todays post takes a closer look at the headgear that is so essential for the dapper gentleman during the Regency period. The top hat is sometimes called “stovepipe” or “Beaver”- different words for the same type of hat. Or? On a side note: the Austens ordered their hats in London. Can not resist including this quotation:

They (the Austen family) bought them where “anybody who was Anybody” bought his hats: from James Lock, “Hatter to the Nobility and Gentry,” in London, at No. 6, St. James’s Street. This is made clear by entries in ledgers surviving at that address from as far back as 1783. (Mr. Lock: Hatter to Jane Austen’s Family by Kenneth S. Cliff and Frank Whitbourn.)

First, let us take a look at some portraits and fashion plates.

1795

1795. Again, Monsieur Seriziat by J.L. David. A new era! The tricorne was so l´ancien regime. For day wear, the “round-hat”, a striking felt hat with relatively high crown and brim down. Here with a powdered wig, but it was soon gone, and the hat got smaller in proportions.

Portrait of a Young Man Wearing a Red Cape and Large Hat, ca. 1795-1800, by Francois-Xavier Fabre

1795-1800. Portrait of a young man by Francois-Wavier Fabre. Still full curly hair and a round-hat with wide brim but somewhat lower crown. Note that the crown is flat at the top. The only decoration is a narrow ribbon and buckle.

1802

1802. The same type of hat in a fashion plate. The fashionable young gentleman has cropped hair with curls framing his face.

1803

1803. The bicorne, basically a wide brimmed hat with the front and the rear halves turned up, was still the correct hat for half- and full-dress (formal wear) and certain military and naval uniforms, and (my assumption) more popular with conservative gentlemen.

1804

1804. The top hat. It seems the two hats above co-existed with this new type of hat that would – more or less – dominate for a century. Note that the crown is taller and widens at the top. The brim is now narrower and shaped to turn up slightly at the sides.

1804 b

1804. Another version from the same year, here with a “semi-bell” crown, the type of top hat you would see today.

1807

1807: A good example on variation in full-dress (evening) and half-dress (day wear) – buckled shoes, stockings and bicorne or boots and top hat.

1809

1809. Even taller crown, again bell-shaped.

1809

1809. The crown tapers in towards the top, known as the “Chimney” style. The brim is narrow.

1813

1813. Now we are talking “stove-pipe” – the sides are completely straight and the crown is taller than 6 1/2″. They seem to grow in popularity well into the 1860s.

1816

1816

1817

1817. Rather small looking, but nevertheless the “stove pipe” or top hat.

Conclusion: the shape is slightly different every year, but once the round-hat is abandoned the changes are not very dramatic. Gentlemen most likely chose the most flattering hat depending on one´s appearance and social status/size of purse. It is also interesting that a hat that was once considered avant garde and very informal would end up as the most formal type of headwear in our time (and seen only on rarest of occasions). It is difficult to see in these plates what material the hats are made of. What we have here is the famous beaver hat. This does not mean that these hats were made from beaver skin, as many sources say. That seems to be a misconception. It was the fur of the beaver that was used to make felt of the best quality. (This actually lead to near-extinction of the the North American Beaver.) The hat-making process in these pre-industrial days involved many skilled workers and craftsmen on both sides of the “pond” – from trappers (and native Americans?) to the actual hatmaker. The fur/wool was carded and pressed into felt, then stamped and steamed into the desired shape. For many hats a cheaper fur was used, such as rabbit, or lamb´s wool. The taller hats had a base of buckram or cardboard. Most of the hats seem to be executed in black but they probably came in dark browns, greys and greens. The felt was treated in different ways to be smooth and have a shine. This idea was developed by the Victorians who replaced the costly beaver-felt with silk plush that was relatively easier to obtain. If you wish to read more visit the Gentleman´s guide to buying  a Top Hat here. Now some extant hats:

Hatt C.A Broling 1800

Extant hat, dated to around 1800. Very tall bell-shaped. I would date this a bit later. 1815-20?

Hattmakare J.R Ström Stockholm

Bell-shaped hat, 1800-1815.

Nordiska museet 1830s

Dated to 1830-40, but similar to the examples above from 1809-1813. The brown (Original colour? Or was it black?) felt is worn and reveals the cheaper felt beneath. The Nordiska museet collection. (Inv. no: NM.0100984)

 

Nordiska museet 1840

Well-worn stove-pipe. Around 1840, but came into fashion 1810-20. Nordiska museet, Stockholm. (Inv. no. NM.0093715)

And to wrap up this unusually lengthy post some pictures of yours truly in three different hats:

Regency gentleman aka Mr Tigercrona

I was seen in this straw hat last summer. Protects from the sun. Ideal for picknicks or just hanging around the estate.

Photo: Regencygentleman aka Mr Tigercrona

A classic top hat. Made in London around 1900 or thereabouts. This “Topper” is a bit too small, so I felt the need to look for a replacement.

Photo: Regency gentleman aka Mr Tigercrona

Photo not best quality, but neither is the hat. It is passable, though, and I can wear it on a rainy day without fear of ruining a family heirloom. Take a deep breath: Found it last week at a party store. It is Smiffy´s “Tales of Old England Stovepipe Hat”. You must think I am a complete vulgarian. Pressed “felt” and awful plastic ribbon around crown and as binding, but the shape is perfect and ribbons can be replaced. I might even cover the entire thing with real wool or velvet. If I do, I´ll post about it. Give my word.

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4 thoughts on “The top hat

  1. Wonderful illustrations. I am particularly interested in the top hats with the side brims that arch from front to back. Most of the vintage hats I see have a slight curve upward on the side. Are the dramatic side arch styles simply not available now?

    • That type of brim wasn´t popular with the victorians and went out of fashion. Or? Most extant hats are later, 1880s onwards and have that typical upward curve. They all look basically the same in fashion plates. What do you think?

  2. Pingback: 1795… | Regencygentleman

  3. Pingback: Just An Ordinary Sunday | Regencygentleman

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