A Brief History of the Modern Man’s Hat

Rene Magritte Decalcomania Edit

In the final decade of the eighteenth century, impelled by the ideals of the French Revolution, the top hat replaced the tricorne as the vogue item of headwear for fashionable Europeans. Already popular in France where it would become part of the costume of the Incroyables, the first top hat in England has been credited to the Frenchman George Dunnage, a master hatter then residing in Middlesex, in the year 1793. Across the pond the fifth President of the United States James Monroe, who served between 1817 and 1825, received the nickname ‘The Last Cocked Hat’ for being the last president to wear the tricorne.

Thomas Francis Dollman in London in 1812 and Antoine Gibus in France in 1840 patented designs for collapsible top hats, which could be stored away or packed for travelling. But a competitor to the top hat arrived in 1849 in the form of the bowler, as the London hatmakers Thomas and William Bowler sought to fulfill an order placed by Lock & Co of St James’s Street – founded in 1676, the oldest hat shop in the world – for a man’s hat with a low crown. Unlike the topper, the bowler would remain on the heads of gamekeepers as they rode horseback beneath low-hanging branches. Over in the United States, associated with the attendees of horse racing, the bowler became known as the derby.

Both the top hat and the bowler or derby were typically made of felt, the top hat sometimes known as the beaver hat because felted beaver fur was its most common material. Alas, in the early nineteenth century the production of felt went hand in hand with prolonged exposure to mercury. As hatmakers began succumbing to mercury poisoning, which affects the central nervous system and results in tremors, sensory impairment, mood swings, and occasional bouts of delirium, the phrase ‘mad as a hatter’ was coined to refer to anyone who seemed to verge on the insane.

Gibus Collapsible Top Hat
The spring-loaded collapsible top hat designed in the early nineteenth century by Antoine Gibus, which became variously known as the Gibus, the opera hat, or the chapeau claque.

There was some respite, as despite its egalitarian origins – and the fact that according to a later report in the Hatters’ Gazette, the first appearance of the top hat in London ‘frightened people, made children cry, and dogs bark’ while its wearer, the haberdasher John Hetherington, was charged with a breach of the peace – the topper quickly became the hat of choice among upper class gentlemen. Beaver fur was gradually replaced by silk plush in the construction of top hats, although this too was sometimes treated with mercury as a means of enhancing a hat’s blackness. By the middle of the century, the top hat was getting taller and thinner, the style known as the stovepipe popularised in the United States by President Abraham Lincoln.

Meanwhile the Panama hat, weaved in Ecuador from the early seventeenth century but shipped worldwide from the Isthmus of Panama between the Caribbean Sea and the Pacific Ocean, received a boost as it became popular among the miners of the California Gold Rush. In France, an 1882 play by Victorien Sardou, written to star the world famous Sarah Bernhardt, saw the actress attired in a soft felt hat which soon become fashionable among women. The play was called Fédora, and the hat took its name from the title of the play, beginning its transition into an item of menswear at the beginning of the twentieth century. At the same time the flat cap, long the mark of the lower classes, emerged as an increasingly modish choice across Britain and Ireland.

The bowler, smart but sturdy, in industrialised Britain had become the first mass-produced hat in history. Its practicality for the purpose of riding had also allowed it to remain popular in the American West – and looking back in the Deseret News in 1957, the writer Lucius Beebe even argued that it was ‘the hat that won the west’, rather than the Stetson or sombrero which were made iconic in the paintings and illustrations of Frederic Remington.

James Joyce Flat Cap 1
James Joyce in a flat cap, photographed by his friend Constantine P. Curran in 1904, in Curran’s back garden in Dublin. Asked later what he was thinking when the picture was taken, Joyce said, ‘I was wondering would he lend me five shillings’.

As the top hat became increasingly aristocratic, the bowler remained common well into the twentieth century. Its status as the hat of the everyman was enhanced when Charlie Chaplin, developing the iconic role of The Tramp, took to attiring himself in a too-small bowler atop a tight tailcoat, baggy pants, oversized shoes, a cane, and a toothbrush moustache. Laurel and Hardy followed suit with bowlers of their own, Stan’s generally a little thinner and flatter than Oliver’s. And beyond silent comedy, bowlers featured on the stage in Bertolt Brecht’s The Threepenny Opera and Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, and on the canvas in the surreal paintings of René Magritte.

But by the 1920s, the John B. Stetson Company was the largest hatmaker in the world. Founded in 1865, Stetson’s first design was the Boss of the Plains, a lightweight hat with a high crown and a wide brim, partially inspired by the sombrero, which had made a success of the short journey from Mexico to the American West. The Boss of the Plains became the prototype for all other cowboy hats. Devised in Colorado and sold out of Philadelphia, it made the Stetson Company an overnight success. Steadily incorporating other styles, at its peak the company processed 16 million animal pelts and produced 3.3 million hats a year from its nine-acre factory in the outskirts of Philadelphia, with large markets outside the United States in Argentina, Mexico, Canada, and South Africa.

Stetson encouraged a surge in the wearing of fedoras in the 1920s, ostensibly the result of their take-up by Prince Edward. But the company remained best known for the cowboy hat, adorned by the showman Buffalo Bill, co-opted by American presidents including Harry Truman, Dwight Eisenhower, and Lyndon B. Johnson, and becoming bound up with the rugged style and encompassing mythology of the movie Western, where it was inseparable from the heads of characters played by William S. Hart, Clayton Moore, and most of all John Wayne.

Fred Astaire Top Hat
Fred Astaire during ‘Top Hat, White Tie and Tails’, the celebrated dance solo at the centre of the 1935 screwball musical comedy Top Hat. With songs by Irving Berlin, Top Hat was the most successful picture in the partnership between Astaire and Ginger Rogers.

The silent era and the height of slapstick saw Harold Lloyd spur a fad for straw boaters and horn-rimmed glasses. And Buster Keaton found a typically idiosyncratic use for the Stetson, wetting, folding, and cutting them up to form his trademark pork pie hat with a flat brim and low crown. The first hat to be called a pork pie had been worn by women from the 1830s, with a curved brim and feathers attached to the hatband, covered by a bow. Now Keaton encouraged a niche for the pork pie hat among men.

The architect Frank Lloyd Wright and the jazz saxophonist Lester Young both adopted variants of the pork pie hat with wider brims, Wright’s often curved and carrying a taller crown. And decades later in the early 1970s, Gene Hackman in The French Connection and Robert De Niro in Mean Streets appeared on the big screen in pork pie hats. Hackman’s character Jimmy ‘Popeye’ Doyle was based on the real-life New York City policeman Eddie Egan, who despite playing Doyle’s supervisor in the film, refused to loan Hackman his own pork pie hat for the duration of shooting, forcing the filmmakers to commission a replica. More recently, Walter White in Breaking Bad, played by Bryan Cranston, wore a pork pie when under the persona of Heisenberg.

Slowly, steadily, then suddenly, what had been commonplace and everyday became formal, and men’s hats fell altogether out of fashion. The homburg, a felt hat with a single dent running down the centre of the crown, a stiffly curved brim, and a bound edge trim, had arrived in England on the head of Edward VII after a visit to Bad Homburg in Germany. The Conservative politician Anthony Eden made it so much his trademark in the 1930s that the homburg became informally known as ‘The Eden’ on Savile Row. But when Dwight D. Eisenhower wore a homburg for his inauguration as President of the United States in 1953, he was breaking with tradition, as the top hat had been customary at presidential inaugurations for many years. John F. Kennedy restored the top hat for his inauguration in 1961 despite his disdain for all manner of headwear, but he was the last American president to be inaugurated accompanied by a formal hat.

Al Pacino Godfather Homburg
Al Pacino wore a homburg as Michael Corleone in Francis Ford Coppola’s 1972 film The Godfather.

Its heyday in the 1920s at the time of prohibition had allowed the fedora to linger in the public consciousness as the hat of gangsters, but it was not commonly worn. It made sporadic appearances on the heads of Indiana Jones and Michael Jackson, before its recent resurgence as the essential wardrobe item for aspiring nice guys of the internet. The narrow-brimmed trilby – named for its presence in an 1895 stage adaptation of the George du Maurier novel – gained a measure of popularity in the 1960s, when its small stature suited the frame of American automobiles, but it too soon faded from view. The bowler persisted longest as the attire of brash City bankers and businessmen, but only so far as the early 1980s.

Today the top hat is a costume choice more than a matter of practical dress, confined to morning wear, magicians, and the occasional horse meet. The homburg is the preferred option if you absolutely must wear a hat with black tie. Flat caps and berets retain their popularity in small pockets and among certain subcultures – while preserving a connection to its Basque origins, the beret has become standard military headgear virtually worldwide since the middle of the twentieth century. And the bowler does continue to be worn by Quechua and Aymara women across South America, after it was introduced to Bolivia in the 1920s by British railway workers.

Panamas and other straw hats are certainly viable options come the summer. But only two types of hat can boast year-round ubiquity in contemporary menswear. In the nineteenth century the early players of organised baseball wore hats for the sake of propriety, but in a broad array of styles, with variations on straw and pillbox hats the most common. Around Boston caps took hold, however these were floppy and their peaks exceedingly short. The ancestor of the modern baseball cap, with a long peak and a button on top, was first worn by the Brooklyn Excelsiors in 1860, and the Brooklyn style came to predominate as the nineteenth century switched gears and turned into the twentieth.

Early Baseball Caps
Early baseball caps from a uniform catalogue published in 1875. Brooklyn-style caps, the precursors of the modern baseball cap with their long peaks, are pictured on the left. Boston-style caps, floppy and with short peaks, are pictured on the right.

The first decades of the twentieth century saw stitched peaks and a shift in the number of panels, but the baseball cap as we know it had to wait until the 1940s, when latex rubber became the stiffening material inside the cap, adding in one swing a suitable combination of protective rigidity and flexible comfort. Even then it was not until 1954 that the baseball cap became standard throughout Major League Baseball, subsequent decades witnessing the cap’s seamless transition from sportswear to an indelible part of popular culture.

The baseball cap’s only competitor for headspace nowadays comes by way of the knit cap: beanies and bobble hats, which have a much older provenance, especially in Scandinavia where a form of knit cap with a bobble or pom-pom was being worn as far back as the Viking period. A more distant precursor is the Phrygian cap, common among ancient Greeks and Romans and in other parts of Eastern Europe and Anatolia, resurrected in revolutionary France as the red cap of the sans-culottes. We might look also to the Welsh Monmouth cap and to the Canadian tuque. Today even the baseball cap makes way for the beanie, indoors as well as outdoors, when men need something to throw on over an unkempt head of hair.