The first appearance of a men’s top hat in England was in 1797 by John Hetherington — a local London haberdasher. It was a daring, new style — constructed of gleaming black silk — that was much higher than previous head coverings worn by men.
Unfortunately, Hetherington’s bold display caused quite a stir among people who saw it for the first time in the form of gasps, shrieks and even at least one person fainting. In fact, Hetherington was arrested for disturbing the peace for wearing such an odd and alarming hat in public.
Current Top Hat Styles
Today, it’s almost impossible to find new silk top hats, as most new constructions are felt or leather top hats. The last silk plush factory in the world — then located in Lyons, France — was permanently closed in 1968.
One advantage of the current felt top hat models is that they are more durable than their previous silk counterparts, which could be easily damaged. If you are determined to have a new silk top hat, however, you might be able to find someone to make a custom top hat version for you, such as a top hat designer.
How to Make a Top Hat in a Factory Setting
If you attempted to make a top hat at home, you’d need to find or design a top hat pattern. Top hat manufacturers, however, take a different approach.
To begin the process of fashioning a top hat, factory workers spray a fine mist of water on hoods — which are pre-cut hat forms made of felt — and left to dry overnight. The water softens the chemical stiffener in the felt and makes the hat forms easier to shape.
The next day, workers place the hat in a top hat mold, which is made of aluminum and comes in various sizes to make different sizes of top hats. The mold applies both heat and pressure to the hat form, transforming the generic piece of felt into a top hat.
The shaping process lasts approximately 90 seconds. Next, the fully shaped top hat is removed from the mold and set aside for about 30 seconds to cool, which reactivates the stiffener in the hat. Then, the hat’s brim is given a final trim with scissors to remove any excess felt.
Top Hat Finishing
First, a seamstress sews a ribbon around the outer edge of the brim. The ribbon covers the top and bottom edge. Then, a lining is cut out and stamped with the hat maker’s symbol. Once the lining is sewn — and after a layer of stiffener is applied inside the crown and allowed to dry — the liner is installed in the hat.
Next, a leather sweat band, which is treated to resist mildew from sweating, is created for each specific hat size and installed in the hat. The leather band not only protects the hat from sweat stains, but it also makes the hat more comfortable to wear.
Finally, a ribbon is often attached to the base of the crown. In addition, other adornments may be applied to the top hat, such as a bow.
The Top Hat Lives On
From its not so humble beginnings to its almost relic-of-the-past status, the top hat continues to hang on as a choice of headwear. While it’s nowhere near as popular as it once was — when men wore it as part of their daily outfit — it still has a place in some special-occasion settings — weddings, balls — or as an anytime topper for those who like a more whimsical look.