A Tip of the Hat to the Top Hat

I tell you, there aren’t nearly enough hats in our everyday lives. Sure, there are beanies and baseball caps, but on the whole your average snowman is better dressed than today’s most fashionable males. Luckily, there is Steampunk, which gives all gents (and ladies) a chance to step up their millinery game. Top hats sure are dapper, but where did they come from?

The Origin of the Top Hat

The top hat’s origins are fuzzy, but many fashion historians believe it was an evolution from something called the “sugarloaf hat,” but we would probably say it was a “pilgrim hat” nowadays. (Minus the apocryphal buckle, that is). In the transition from loaf to “high hat” (aka silk hat, topper, cylinder hat, stovepipe hat, chimney pot hat) the whole thing became more rigid and the brim retreated. Like the early Stetsons, top hats were often made from beaver, but later silk also became de rigueure.

Top hats were made through a process known as blocking, where the hatter started with a wooden frame and draped it with a material such as gossamer. It was then covered in shellac and ammonia, and left to cure for several weeks even months. Later, felt was cut and applied to the frame and a hot iron helped to re-melt the shellac and attach the fabric to the frame. If the hat was meant for use in the country for activities such as hunting and horseback riding, the gossamer layer would be much thicker to add durability. Most toppers also had a leather band on the inside to catch sweat and keep the hat from moving around too much.

Who and When

victorianridingclothingWomen would also sometimes wear top hats in the steam era, and you see plenty of it in Steampunk and burlesque fashion nowadays. In the city it was not so regular an occurrence, but while out riding women would sometimes wear a smaller version of the top hat that often had a veil.

Top hats were considered both day and evening wear, which may seem strange to us now. If we see a man sporting this type of hat he is more than likely wearing a tuxedo (and perhaps tap-dancing in a throwback, Broadway musical.) The British royal family and some of their officials do continue to wear top hats for certain events, such as attending horse-racing and certain ceremonies.

Just Add Goggles?

One of the features you often see in Steampunk attire is a top hat with goggles resting on the brim. In reality, there wouldn’t be that many occasions when a gent would be wearing both a topper and goggles. Goggles were certainly used while driving and perhaps ballooning, but that aerodynamics of a top hat would make it a poor choice for this type of activity. But, Steampunk is an aesthetic, not historical fact, and the goggles look pretty sweet no matter if they are on the brim, on one’s face, or hanging around one’s neck.

Other Steampunk adaptations include clock faces and hands, raucous colors, alternative materials, and other aesthetically pleasing, though not wholly practical, adornments, such as corset strings. Here are some fun Steampunk top hats I found around the interwebs. I couldn’t always find the image attributions, so if you know the artist, please leave a comment and I’ll add their name to the image. Enjoy!


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