Top hat, James Lock & Co

Top hat, James Lock & Co

Top hat
James Lock & Co.
Black silk plush, with a woollen band and satin lining
Museum no. T.216&A-1960
Bequeathed by Lady Beerbohm

In the early 19th century the top hat was the predominant type of headwear in a gentleman's wardrobe. It reached its peak of popularity during the 1840s and 1850s, when mass manufacturing and industrialisation brought fashionable dress within the reach of a much wider section of the population. During the second half of the century new informal styles, such as the straw boater and soft felt hat, as well as the more formal bowler hat, challenged the predominance of the top hat.

By the 1880s the top hat was relegated to more formal occasions when a gentleman would wear a frock or tail coat. Manners for Men, by Mrs Humphry ('Madge of Truth'), reported:

'Frequently a silk hat is never seen between Sunday and Sunday. Churchgoers still, to a certain extent, affect it, but in these days of outdoor life, bicycling, and so on, the costume worn by men in church is experiencing the same modifications that characterise it in other department.'

The shape of the top hat appeared at the end of the 18th century. It changed in shape over time and a range of different styles appeared as the century progressed. The gibus or collapsible top hat came into fashion in the 1840s and was often worn with evening dress. It was made of corded silk or cloth over a metal framework which sprung open with a flick of the wrist. It could easily be carried under the arm, making it more convenient for an evening at the opera or theatre than the rigid top hats. Some top hats had ventilation holes in the crown.

In the late 18th century and first half of the 19th century top hats were known as 'beavers'. This is because they were made of felted beaver fur wool. In 1862 Henry Mayhew's London Labour and the London Poor reported that 'the bodies of beaver hats are made of a firm felt wrought up of fine wool, rabbit's hair etc. ... over this is placed the nap prepared from the hair of the beaver.' The processes used to create the beaver hats involved the use of mercury. Contact with mercury often had detrimental effects on the hatters and led to the phrase 'mad as a hatter'. By the late 19th century most top hats were made of silk.