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There must be some magic in that old top hat, because it dances
from high to low in a heartbeat. And it's been doing that dance for
Beaver top hats were introduced to Europe and America in the
1780s, during the North American fur trade. For two centuries
afterward, the top hat as an object, symbol and icon has lived one
Top hatters (l to r): Dr. Jeckyll, Lewis Carroll's Hatter,
Frosty the Snowman, Abraham Lincoln and Boss Tweed.
Planters' Mr. Peanut and logo for Johnnie Walker.
The top hat has topped the noggins of Uncle Sam and the Mad
Hatter, Jack the Ripper and J. P. Morgan, Dr. Jekyll and Abraham
Lincoln, Boss Tweed and Frosty the Snowman. The top hat is
adaptable, flexible and in some cases literally collapsible. To
survive beyond its use in popular fashion, the top hat has achieved
longevity as both a symbol and an iconic shape. As a symbol, the
top hat is part of the Yankees logo, a brand of cigarettes and a
tattoo (commonly paired with a skull). As a shape, the top hat
reduces to a familiar silhouette, almost as recognizable as a star,
moon or cross. Endless products are made in the shapes of top hats:
vases, earrings, key chains, charms, magnets, license plates,
wedding favors. Top-hat-shaped objects take on the nickname: top
hat bolts, top hat theater lights, and top hat amplifier knobs. The
Paria Plateau in Arizona, an Antarctica research balloon and a
sharp hill in a roller coaster have all earned the nickname Top
Hat. The top hat contains multitudes.
From Top Hat (1935) to Dumb and Dumber (1994).
I saw a top-hat logo not long ago, and the first word that came
to mind was cheesy. That exact word emerged like a verdict,
a death sentence. I wondered why that should be.
I guess I knew why. I see a top hat, and I think weddings,
tuxedos, limo rentals. I see one top-hat logo, and all the rest
come to mind: Top Hat Formalwear, Top Hat Imagewear, Top Hat
Limousine, Top Hat Party Rental, Top Hat Entertainment. There is an
earnest sincerity about using the top hat this way. Those
businesses are striving for formal elegance, the top hat being the
epitome of sophistication.
And yet the top hat is so anachronistic. When would an American
today wear one sincerely? For a groom to wear a top hat to a
morning wedding, it doth belie a bit of pretension, don't it? It's
a false nod to some mythical British garden party. Today, a top hat
and tails might bring to mind the colorful mockery worn by Jim
Carrey in the 1994 movie Dumb and Dumber far more than it
might recall the sleek ideal donned by Fred Astaire in the 1935
movie Top Hat.
Almost no one wears a top hat today. Or a fine hat of any kind,
for that matter. Hat sellers blamed JFK for being the first public
figure to appear without a hat, depressing hat sales ever since.
Yet, a hatless trend would have been inevitable in the increasingly
pluralistic culture of the 1960s and '70s. Contemporary wearers of
such over-the-top hats are usually celebrities, models and
musicians. Bob Dylan made it counterculture. T-Rex made it rock and
roll. Slash made it metal (although Alice Cooper did it first). In
2008, Madonna, Prince and Britney all made it pop. T-Pain made it
hip-hop. Heidi Klum made it glamorous, while Mary Kate Olsen made
it hobo chic. Lately, the top hat has cropped up on runways,
prompting a Globe and Mail writer to note: “Top hats have
been a big hit with stylists this winter, as part of the equestrian
and circus trends. Off the glossy pages, I've spotted a few dandies
wearing them about town with aplomb.”
Mamas, don't let your dandies run off to join circus trends.
As a thing to be worn, the top hat survives best as a prop. I
see a top hat, and I also think of magicians, fops and gentlemen's
clubs. Top hats are worn by entertainers, illusionists, circus
ringmasters, strippers and chimney sweeps. Actors wear them for
effect in movies and plays. Revelers wear green ones on St.
Patrick's Day. White-bearded men on stilts wear red, white and blue
ones on the Fourth of July.
From banker J. P. Morgan (top) to actor W. C. Fields, in My
Little Chickadee (1940).
In fact, it's arguable that the top hat was a prop from the
start. Its first incarnation as a beaver top hat probably bore some
utility in keeping one's head warm in chilly weather. But in its
tall, black silk incarnation in the early 1800s—first worn in
public, so the story goes, by British hatmaker John
Hetherington—the top hat became a raging fashion among the elite
and the ambitious, its hyperbolic proportions inexplicable except
as a social trend among wealthy Europeans. Its grandiose cylinder
announced one's superior social status while walking in crowds. As
the hat became more common among the masses, the height of the top
hat increased. Opera top hats became so tall they were made
collapsible. The extra-tall stovepipe hat made its appearance and
was made famous by W. C. Fields. And banker J. P. Morgan supposedly
raised the roof of his limousine to accommodate the elevation of
his supersized hat.
In the 1900s, formality gave way to informality, and the top hat
was replaced by derbies and bowlers. (Tellingly, in the 1920s
Schacht, the Clown Prince of Baseball, wore a top hat and tails
over a baseball uniform and put on comedy routines during games.)
As a result, the top hat has survived best as a symbol. The New
Eustace Tilley, its fictional fop in top hat and monocle,
created by Rea Irvin, in its first issue in 1925. Thus, the top hat
disappeared from public and reappeared in print. Its symbolic
meaning derives from its use as a social prop of the rich, the
upper class, those who feel themselves to be superior. But as soon
as any snooty fop puts one on his head, a street punk longs to
knock it off, or a comedian longs to punch a hole through it. The
egotistical top hat is no match for the wit of change.
The top hat may symbolize elegance, but it is also a symbolic
locus of class warfare and, more generally, of social conflict
between the powerful and the powerless. Track the life of the top
hat and you'll find yourself in the middle of the most dramatic
tensions in the history of the United States: British versus
Americans, colonists versus Indians, whites versus blacks, men
versus women, Wall Street versus Main Street. The top hat is like a
shuttlecock batted between the sides. As a symbol, the top hat
forces you to consider contradictions: respect/disrespect,
ambition/humility, art/business, capitalism/labor,
Demeaning representations (clockwise from top left): picture
from 1860 book Running a Thousand Miles for Freedom, Nazi-era
poster, coin bank and cigarettes.
While the original beaver top hat was made from beaver pelt in
North America in the 1700s, it wasn't until the British popularized
the top hat that others emulated the style. Native Americans had
already been wearing hats made from beaver pelt, but once the white
man appeared, the Indian and the top hat endured a complicated
relationship. One of the first Western images of an Indian wearing
a top hat appears in a George Catlin painting of 1832. In the first
panel, Wi-ju-jon goes to Washington, D.C., in a headdress and
traditional leather clothing. In the second panel, he returns from
D.C. wearing a military coat and a beaver top hat. Those who signed
treaties were customarily given gifts, so the top hat here
symbolizes that Wi-ju-jon got took.
Both Native Americans and black Americans have had mixed
relationships with the top hat, for the similar reason that both
have had troubled histories with Western European and white
American societies. An early Indian may have made his own
beaver-pelt hat, appropriated a white man's hat, or taken it as a
trophy. A black man may have come into a top hat secondhand, as
anyone of limited means might have in Europe or America, simply
because hats were so plentiful. However, top hats were also put on
persons of lower or second-class status as a mockery.
Subversive top hats: Merry Prankster Paul Foster at Woodstock in
1969 (left) and T-Pain at the Grammys in 2008.
If a top hat epitomizes social pretension, then putting one on a
common person mocks that person's hope to improve their lot. A top
hat keeps them down. While a fugitive slave is pictured
respectfully in a top hat in the frontispiece of the 1860 book
Running a Thousand Miles for Freedom; or, the Escape of William
and Ellen Craft from Slavery, there are far more instances of
black men being made to wear top hats and perform a service or
entertain. Today, telling vintage artifacts survive, most notably
metal coin banks made to resemble black men in top hats. A lever
moves an arm, which deposits a coin in the figure's mouth or top
hat, and the Jolly Black Man Coin Bank rolls his eyes. The mocking
caricature of a black man in a top hat and tails appears a century
later in Nazi posters advertising jazz as degenerate music. So when
hip-hop producer T-Pain appeared in a graffiti top hat and
translucent cane to accept his Grammy Award in 2008, he was
appropriating a caricature that had been used to mock black men for
nearly two centuries. (In a disturbing real-life twist, this past
October—the same month T-Pain accepted his Grammy—two white men
were arrested in Tennessee for plotting to shoot black
schoolchildren and assassinate Barack Obama; the young men, 18 and
20, planned to wear white tuxedos and top hats.)
Poster for Club Top Hat, providing entertainment for soldiers in
Top hats were never intended to be worn by women—or at least not
for long. It's not clear when women first began to wear top hats
and tails for the purposes of entertainment, cabaret or striptease,
but the image of a long-legged woman twirling a cane and then
throwing her top hat stage-right is firmly embedded in the culture.
If misfit males were meant to be mocked by the top hat, women were
meant to be sexed up by it. Even today, top hats for women are
marketed as part of stripper costumes, sexy Halloween costumes, or
sometimes more earnestly as dance wear. For example, the Top Hat
Dance Studio traces the line of its brand to Fred Astaire and
Ginger Rogers, while the Top Hat Strip Club leaves all of its
traces underlined and in bold. The Charlotte Bobcat cheerleaders
call themselves the Top Cats, and their logo is a cat in a top hat.
(There's that word cheesy again.) Today, by contrast, when
Madonna wears a top hat, she's channeling the tough androgyny of
Marlene Dietrich, who wore a tuxedo and top hat in the 1928 movie
Morocco. (Alas, when Britney wears a top hat, she's just
Logo for the city of Birmingham, Alabama.
When used in a brand, the top hat is supposed to represent high
class, but as a logo or in a name, a top hat often feels forced and
hokey, a desperate claim for a reputation the brand has yet to
earn: Top Hat Creative, Top Hat Auctions, Top Hat Trailers, TopHat
Tobacco, Top Hat Ice Cream, Top Hat Golf Bags. In early 2008, the
city of Birmingham, Alabama, made its logo a skyline coming out of
an upside-down top hat, the slogan being “More Magic than Ever.”
This is where cheesy comes in big time, mainly for the failure to
understand the meaning of the symbol being used. Birmingham is a
rabbit being pulled out of a hat? This is not classy and
enchanting. It's cheap and self-defeating. It invites laughter, not
To be fair, the city of Birmingham probably meant to capitalize
on childhood associations of the top hat with amazing magicians,
Frosty the Snowman, Jiminy Cricket, the Cat in the Hat, Willy Wonka
(Betty Boop being the rare female cartoon example). But let's be
honest. With few exceptions, if a cartoon character wears a top
hat, chances are he's a bad guy.
Logo for Bullwinkle's Top Hat Bistro (top), inspired by The
Rocky and Bullwinkle Show.
In fact, Frosty's hat belongs to Professor Hinkle, a magician
who looks a lot like Snidely Whiplash, Dudley Do-Right's nemesis in
the cartoon The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show (in a recurring
trope, Bullwinkle pulls Rocky out of a top hat; in homage, there is
Bullwinkle's Top Hat Bistro in Ohio). Professor Hinkle and Snidely
Whiplash can trace their roots to the silent-movie villains with
the curling mustaches, capes and top hats, who tied damsels to
train tracks. Those characters are over the top, but the costumed
villain is an archetype that lives on even in today's latest
Batman movies. In the 1970s, it was camp. In the 1976 TV
game show The Gong Show, an actor played a villain in a cape
and top hat so the audience could enjoy booing and hissing.
Portrayals of villains in top hats began soon after top hats
were popularized and have never gone away. A top hat can conceal a
man's true character. Evil can lurk behind civility. Charles
Dickens' A Christmas Carol was published in 1843, and while
subsequent portrayals of Ebenezer Scrooge put him under a top hat,
it isn't clear when that started (no top hat is mentioned in the
story). In the 1870s, Thomas Nast developed his caricature of Boss
Tweed, which arguably inspired countless variations, including Mr.
Monopoly (or Rich Uncle Pennybags, who could also count J. P.
Morgan as a model). In early movies based on the 1886 novella
Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, by Robert Louis
Stevenson, Dr. Jekyll wears a top hat while his evil alter ego Mr.
Hyde sports a wolfish mane. In 1888, in London, Jack the Ripper
made headlines, and subsequent portrayals of him in movies have him
dressed in top hat and cape. In 1898, Lewis Carroll gave us
the Hatter in
Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, and that character has
been working ever since. The Mad Hatter appeared in his first
Batman comic in October 1948, and he will be played by
Johnny Depp in Tim Burton's live-action movie Alice in
Wonderland in 2010.
Women in hats (counterclockwise from top): Betty Boop, Marlene
Dietrich and Britney Spears.
Surprisingly, the story of Frosty the Snowman embodies the top
hat's dual qualities. The hat represents greed when worn by
Professor Hinkle, but is good and life-giving when it adorns
Frosty. The top hat has the power for both good and evil, for life
and death, depending on whose head on which it sits.
In the world of branding, such complexity is rarely seen. The
nostalgic nods to literal elegance can be found at the Village Hat
Shop in California, the Silk Top Hat Company in London or at
all of which might sell you a real top hat (to be worn tilted at a
10-degree angle, of course). And at the other end of the spectrum,
you can always find the trashy and tacky, from a sexy Halloween
top-hat-and-tails costume at Musotica, whose slogan is “dress to
undress,” to a top hat and tails for your dog at Wiggle-n-Waggle
(whose slogan should be “dress to make a mess”).
But as luck would have it, there are examples of self-conscious
humor and irony. Who isn't heartened to discover Top Hat Taxidermy
in the UK? Its logo is an owl in a top hat, wise and refined,
though rather stiff. And finally there is Top Hat Exterminating in
Staten Island, New York.
Yes, first let's kill all the top hats.
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