Top Hats and Tales

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 230 years.

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 heckuva life.


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 Al 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 Yorkerdebuted 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, highbrow/lowbrow, superior/inferior.

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 Korea.

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 copying Madonna.)

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 awe.

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.