In the 1790s John Hetherington, a hatter in Charing Cross, adapted the riding hat by making a silk-covered version with a narrower brim and a higher crown. He was the first person to make a top hat and wear it in the street. The sight of the topper caused a commotion among passersby and Hetherington was charged with wearing a 'a tall structure having a shining lustre calculated to frighten timid people.' The top hat was slow to catch on but its place in society was assured when Prince Albert took to wearing it in 1850.
In the 19th century everyone wore hats and a man's occupation and standing in society could be recognised by his clothing. A top hat denoted a gentleman and those who were involved in the professions and trades. Artists, intellectuals and country people wore the informal soft trilby. By the middle of the century many jobs had adopted the top hat - clerks, police, postmen, and railway servants. Even the military wore a brimless version. It was the industrial era and a gathering of top hats was likened to factory chimneys. Aside from business, men wore tops hats for pleasure and leisure. Certain occasions called for particular headwear and the top hat was suitable for the theatre, formal dinners and balls.
The top hat was usually worn with a morning coat or frock coat, and accessorised with gloves and a cane. The length of the coat, reaching almost to the knees, balanced the height of the top hat. The topper could also be worn for hunting, where it acted as a rudimentary crash helmet. An inner band on the hat contained a drawstring that was tightened to hold the hat on the wearer's head even when jumping over fences. Then, it would be worn with a long riding coat, shiny black boots and jodhpurs.
The height and contour of the top hat fluctuated over the 19th century. Styles included the Abraham Lincoln - named for the American president and of a straight-sided cylindrical shape, the Caroler, John Bull and the Gambler. There was also the Opera Hat - designed to collapse so that it would be stored under the seat at the theatre. The Ascot high hat was the hat of gentlemen and the height gave the wearer a certain bearing, which was interpreted as arrogance and snobbishness. This led to the expression 'high hat.'
At the beginning of the 20th century the frock coat and morning coat gave way to the short jacket for work. It was less formal and was worn with the homburg, bowler or trilby. The top hat was reserved for formal events. This has remained the case, and today the top hat is worn with white tie and tails only on occasions like weddings. The top hat makes an annual appearance on Ascot Race Day, where men wear grey top hats and tails. This 20th century top hat comes from Bates Hatter, 21 Jermyn Street, St James, London. The inside of the crown has the stamp of the store's crest, plus the size of the hat 'J' and the words, 'Extra Quality.'
The top hat has had a starring role in entertainment. In 1814 the top hat began its career in magic when French conjurer Louis Comte pulled a white rabbit out of a top hat. Other magicians copied this trick and soon they were pulling all sorts of things from the hat, including flowers, scarves and doves. Fred Astaire pioneered a one-man revival of the top hat in the 1930s when he wore it in more than a dozen films. His film Top Hat was made in 1935. He dances in top hat, full white tie and tails, gloves and a cane.