It’s What’s On Top

Good evening, gentle readers.

I must apologize for my absence of several months. I was just too busy with offline stresses and responsibilities and wondering, in truth, where to go to next. I thought I may return to the wardrobe as I’ve written about the etiquette of hats but not the things themselves so without further adieu: hats.

Hats were required at all levels of society and for men of all classes. The man’s hat did not fall out of fashion until the Kennedy era when the American’s ‘presidential (royal) family’ disdained hats because they did not like the look or what hats did to their hair. And the Kennedy boys were all about the coiffure at that time.

Let us begin with the hat that everyone believes defined the Victorian era: the top hat. The first top hat made its debut in the late 18th century though there are several arguments as to its origin. The first collapsible top hat was created in 1812 in order to make traveling with the hat easier. The top hat truly took off in about 1850 when Prince Albert set the fashion. Made initially of either beaver fur [for its waterproof qualities], oilcloth or felt, the silk top hat came a few decades later.The hat band can be either silk, wool or felt.

Grey or brown was meant for daywear and black could be worn day or night. Louis Comte, a French magician in 1814, was the first to use the top hat to conjure up a white rabbit. For refined, self-assurance, men would wear top hats tilted at a 10 degree angle, no more, no less. Top hats come in a variety of heights and styles with either curled/curved or flat brims. Generally the rule is that the higher the top hat [within a respectable height] the higher the class of gentleman.

The bowler, or derby has a lower and rounded top, was most often made of felted wool or straw [though occasionally you can find a leather one] and is usually associated with the middle classes of the period. Brown or grey were the predominant colours though the bowler could be found in a variety of heights, brim styles and shades. Designed and created around the mid 19th century, the bowler was stronger and harder to unseat than a top hat. It was also the most popular hat in the American midwest during the Victorian period.

In the last quarter of the 19th century the slouch hat became very popular. Made of felted wool or other cloth it bears a striking resemblance to the fedora though generally with a slightly smaller brim. Slouch hats started among the military, particularly in the colonies. And fedoras ARE proper for men in late period Victorian-wear.

The newsboy cap, the flat cap and similar styles were also popular during the latter half of the Victorian era, particularly among the lower and middle classes [though the upper class would affect a flat cap during the weekend in the country or during summer outings]. Generally made of cloth they were simple, easy to crumple up into a pocket and light, and there was a plethora of styles to choose from.

And finally we have the straw boater. Made of straw, as the name suggests, this style was created specifically for summer-wear, particularly at sporting events but due to its lightness and easy wear it became extremely popular towards the end of the Victorian era. Popular with men of all social classes and standings the rule was that a boater was NEVER to be worn with a black jacket or coat, though a jacket of some style must be worn with the boater.

And then there are the homburg, the pork pie, the smoking cap and a broad variety of military or ethnic headgear available depending on the clothing and occasion.

It is recommended that you find one or more hats, depending on the extent of your wardrobe, for no Victorian man would be seen out of his home without his hat.

H.A. Higgins-Keith