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The History of Top Hats

In 1797, an English haberdasher named John Hetherington was brought into custody by the Lord Mayor. The charges? Disturbing the peace and starting a riot. The cause of all the pandemonium? Hetherington had taken to the streets to model his new headwear: a tall hat made from beaver and covered in black silk. This act reportedly caused dogs to bark, women to faint, and children to shout. While the top hat’s first outing certainly caused quite an uproar, the style didn’t become widely popular until the mid-19th century, when Prince Albert began to sport the look. After Prince Albert adopted the headwear, the top hat quickly became the standard formal headwear for men, especially among the upper class. When fashion become more relaxed and informal in the 20th century, the top hat fell by the wayside. Today, it is often associated with business due to the Monopoly man and various political cartoons; it is also associated with various famous figures, including President Abraham Lincoln and performers Fred Astaire and Marlene Dietrich. But the top hat’s most enduring association seems to be its role as a magician’s prop (notably, the trick of pulling a rabbit out of a top hat was first performed in 1914 by magician Louis Comte). In modern fashion, many designers use top hats to add drama to their runway shows, but the style rarely trickles down into public use.

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