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I've always wondered why it's called top hat, and not just a hat, or some other word, which would better describe this specific type of hats. I mean, all hats are placed on "top", right?

enter image description here

Could it mean that this hat was worn by the "top" people of society in the past? Or it was made of the highest quality materials? Or was it excessively overpriced?

Why the "top" in "top hat"?

  • I doubt "top" is directional here, but it could refer to "best", or perhaps "topping off" a sharp outfit. The opposite of a "top hat", then, would not be a "bottom hat", but a shabby hat. – J.R. Mar 10 '14 at 9:34
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    @Mari-LouA This article on the first top hat seen in London, in the late 18th century, describes it as a "top hat in the shape of a stove pipe". So apparently a "top hat" was an originally a term for a hat having some characteristic (like an over coat, that went over one's jacket), not a style of hat, and certainly not the style of hat we now term a "top hat" (a stovepipe hat). But exactly what characteristic made hats "top", I've yet to discover. – Dan Bron Jun 9 '16 at 16:33
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    @DanBron - fron the following article, the first "top hat" does not appear to have had a cover structure, but it was simply but unusually tall: blog.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/sites/9/… - stovepipe hat: 1.bp.blogspot.com/-s7IusHEFRVo/VpvHjY5-2aI/AAAAAAAANjI/… – user66974 Jun 9 '16 at 18:42
  • Hopefully unsupported conjecture is ok in a comment (if not, please let me know and I’ll delete), but since “Double top” is apparently slang for “forty pounds sterling,” maybe top hats were so named because when turned up-side-down the original ones could hold twenty pounds sterling (similar to how ten-gallon hats perhaps got their name?) or else maybe because they originally cost that much!? cc: @Mari-LouA – Papa Poule Jun 12 '16 at 21:42
  • @PapaPoule I've never heard of that slang. It might be interesting to look up on it, and compare dates. – Mari-Lou A Jun 12 '16 at 21:47
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+50

According to the book

Studies in English, Written and Spoken: For the Use of Continental Students. 1st. series, Volume 1 Author Cornelis Stoffel Publisher W.J. Thieme, 1894

on page 247, Top Hat is just a familiar way of saying High hat or Tall hat (self explanatory).

It may have been influenced by the French "Haut-de-forme" (name for a top hat). As haut can be translated either by tall, high or top. At the time there was lot of co-influence between England and France for all things related to fashion, food etc.

enter image description here

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Probably because it was a hat that had a top. Similar hats were known as stove-pipe hats, chimney-pot hats, high hats and tall hats.

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    Are there hats without a top? Kind of defeats the purpose of a hat. But +1 for its other names – Mari-Lou A Jun 9 '16 at 7:03
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    Most hats have a top in the sense that they enclose the top of your head. But a lot of hats don't have a clearly defined top (or "crown"), seperate from the sides: the top and sides sort of merge into one. With the top hat, the top and sides are clearly defined. So this theory seems plausible. – Max Williams Jun 9 '16 at 9:16
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    @user867 the bounty was placed after Barrie England posted his answer. His answer was posted in March 2014. – Mari-Lou A Jun 14 '16 at 6:38
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    @user867 Barrie England no longer posts on this website, although he does log on from time to time, hence my first comment. His silence and non-participation is a loss for EL&U and I would love to see him participate again. But if he were to resume, I doubt he would begin with this answer. – Mari-Lou A Jun 14 '16 at 7:08
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    Why? It's a perfectly decent answer. It's not "wrong". – Mari-Lou A Jun 14 '16 at 7:26
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When did a ‘silk hat’ become a Top Hat?

I found no evidence that the name top hat existed prior 1875. Even the British Chambers' Encyclopaedia: A Dictionary of Universal Knowledge for the People, printed in 1874, didn't mention top hat in its “hat” entry but spoke extensively about beaver and silk hats.

Numerous websites and books cite the Hatter's Gazette article about an Englishman named John Hetherington, who in 1797 was arrested for wearing a “silk hat”. Apparently, its shocking appearance was responsible for inciting a riot; women fainted, children screamed, and dogs barked wildly. He was later fined — an astronomical sum in those days — £500. Despite the reams of citations online and off, there are no surviving records of the Hatter's Gazette article.

A special thank you goes to @Josh61 who found the earliest online excerpts of top hat dated 1875

In The Ladies' Gallery. By Madame Ch. Hundreds

the rule is to wear your hat in the House, [the house of Commons] and a very odd effect it has to see men sitting about in a well-lighted and warm chamber with their hats on their heads. [...] Mr. John Martin. ... it appears, had never, before County Meath sent him to Parliament, worn a hat of the hideous shape which fashion entails upon our suffering male kindred. [...] “Never,” Mr. Martin is reported to have said ... “never will I stoop to wear a top hat. I never had one on my head, and the Saxon shall never make me put it there.” He was as good as his word when he first came to town, and was wont to appear in a low- crowned beaver hat of uncertain architecture. But after he had, for some weeks, assisted the process of Legislature under the shadow of this hat, the Speaker privately and in considerate terms conveyed to him a hint that, in the matter of hats at least, it was desirable to have uniformity in the House of Commons.

Mr. Martin, [...] abandoned the nondescript hat and sacrificed his inclinations and principles to the extent of buying what he calls “a top hat.” But he has not taken kindly to it, and never will.

The next excerpt tells us that, surprisingly, top hat in the 1870s was slang, its original name was beaver.

The Gentleman Cadet

I was in the rear of the division, and dressed in plain clothes; my hat was what modern slang would term “a top hat,” and what in those days we called “a beaver.” This beaver I was rather proud of; it was only the second one I had possessed, a cap having previously done duty for the covering of my head

The true inventor of the silk hat, which later became known as top hat, was always an Englishman.

The Chronicle of Hats in Enjoyable Quotes By Ida Tomshinsky

The first official recorded history of what we now refer to a silk top hat made from silk plush in England is always credited to George Dunnage, a hatter from Middlesex in 1793 [...] Dunnage's silk hat was initially described as “imitation of beaver.”

Why “top”?

Top hats between the years 1840 and 1850 became incredibly tall, some reaching eight inches in height. This would explain why the silk hat was also known as “chimney-pot hat”, “stove pipe hat”, “high hat”, “high silk hat” and “cylinder hat” (Wikipedia)

Barrie England's supposition, “it was a hat that had a top”, could explain how the hat earned its slang term, the distinctive headgear certainly had a flat top. Note the word top is set off with quotation marks in the excerpt below.

Collapsible top-hats

enter image description here

On May 5, 1812, a London hatter called Thomas Francis Dollman patented a design for "an elastic round hat" supported by ribs and springs. His patent was described as:

An elastic round hat, which "may be made of beaver, silk, or other materials." "The top" of the crown and about half an inch from the top "as well as "the brim and about an inch , the crown from the bottom" are stiffened in the ordinary manner. […]

Below, a typical 1800s beaver hat
source

enter image description here

Brighton ‘Toppers’

This has to be one of the oddest photos that cropped up while I was hunting down the beaver / silk hat / top hat. The group of topless men belong to Brighton's Swimming Club, the oldest swimming club in Great Britain. Some say the photo was taken as far back as 1863, while others sustain the 1900s is a more realistic date. Nevertheless, it does show the incredible difference in height and styles these “toppers” were made in.

enter image description here

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The origin of the term might have derived from an earlier fashion trend set forth in the early 1600s by way of the capotain, or sugarloaf hat. This has was also known as the pilgrim hat and the flat topped hat.

Pilgrim Hat

The hat is famously associated with the Pilgrims that traveled to the Americas 1.

Although it is difficult to find a direct association, the tricorne hat was slowly fading out of fashion with the new 'top hat' being seen more often. This date is started to be seen in the late 1700s.

Perhaps the introduction of the new style was another way for the newly established USA to establish their own image and shed a trend of English-centric fashion that centered around the tricorne, which is a staple in most uniforms during those times.

(This is my personal speculation and haven't yet found sources to back it up.)

Pensioners with tricorne hats

  • I believe that the top hat was associated with the British upper crust as well, likely before the style became common in the US. – Hot Licks Jun 13 '16 at 22:20
  • @HotLicks A painting by Charles Vernet of 1796, Un Incroyable, shows a French dandy (one of the Incroyables et Merveilleuses) with such a hat. (upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/d/d0/Incroyable.jpg). You can certainly see a trend of this happening within the USA during that period. It was also considered fashionable to be 'American', especially in France considering their strained relationship with the English at the time. – Tucker Jun 13 '16 at 23:29
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    But the hat is well-documented in London in 1797. – Hot Licks Jun 14 '16 at 1:18
  • @HotLicks But it's also prominent in the US at the time. You also have to understand that magazines, editorials, and other forms of mass media were not as established or renowned as those of London in those days. But there's no use just making claims without backing it up! I'll find sources so you can infer for yourself. – Tucker Jun 14 '16 at 4:56
  • Sorry. Been busy. – Tucker Jun 15 '16 at 15:51

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