12 Elegant Facts About Top Hats
From the patriotic number that Uncle Sam sports to the titular topper in Dr. Seuss’ The Cat in the Hat, top hats showcase personality and style—and their history is just as colorful as the people who wear them.
1. THEY CAN BE COOL (LITERALLY).
A 1911 Popular Mechanics marveled over a new invention, an electric fan built for use inside of top hats. Flipped on with a switch at the brim, the fan “keeps head cool in hot weather.” The battery was built to last for several days of cooling, and replacements were only 15 cents a pop (that's a little under $4 today).
Popular Science, much like Popular Mechanics, took on top hats as an item of interest. In a July 1930 issue, one writer mused about the storage potential of hats if a pocket was inserted into them. Women’s hats could store everything from a powder puff to a needle and thread, and for men, “quite a lot could be easily hidden away in a silk top hat.”
2. THEY INSPIRED AN INSULT.
Top hats gave rise to the phrase “high hat,” used to refer to someone who is snobby or too good for something (like the kind of aristocrat that wore a top hat in the trend’s early years).
3. "MAD AS A HATTER" HAS NOTHING TO DO WITH ALICE.
Lewis Carroll’s the Mad Hatter in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland was known for dressing to the nines with a grandiose top hat, but interestingly, the character wasn’t the origin of the phrase “mad as a hatter.” The term dates back to the 18th century, when factories used mercury in the production of felt, a common material for making all types of hats. Factory workers exposed too frequently to the metal developed mercury poisoning, which induced a type of dementia, or “mad hatter.”
4. THEY'VE BEEN POPPING OUT WHITE RABBITS FOR 200 YEARS.
The first time a bunny mysteriously popped out of a top hat was in 1814, when French magician Louis Comte supposedly performed the now-classic magic trick for the first time.
5. NIXON WORE ONE.
Well into the 20th century, it was common for presidents to wear top hats to look extra posh at their inaugurations. President Richard Nixon was the last president to be inaugurated wearing a top hat, and no president has donned a cap for the big day since.
6. SOME WERE COLLAPSIBLE.
The most portable of top hats, the gibus, was invented in 1840 by its namesake, Antoine Gibus. The spring-loaded topper was built to be folded up and put away when not worn, and could pop back to full-size when a gentleman was ready to head outside. They were also known as opera hats, because they were easy to condense and store under your seat while you took in a show.
7. ONE MOGUL RAISED THE ROOF (IN ORDER TO FIT HIS TOPPER).
It’s rumored that financier J.P. Morgan had a custom-made limousine built for himself with an extra-high roof that allowed him to ride in style without having to take off his top hat (and presumably, expose his balding head).
8. THEY MAKE FEBRUARY 2 A CLASSY AFFAIR.
February 2 is a big day for all of us—it’s when we find out how much longer we (theoretically) have to wait for spring—but it’s also a big day for top hats. The Punxsutawney Groundhog Club, the folks who tote around trusted weather predictor Punxsutawney Phil, break out their top hats every Groundhog’s Day for the big ceremony.
9. THEY'VE GOTTEN PROGRESSIVELY … LOWER.
Top hats have spanned quite a range of heights over the years. Early on, they stood tall (really tall), some reaching up to eight inches high. The Victorian Era was a more subdued time for top hats, with tallest hat height only reaching between six and seven inches. And by the time the 1920s rolled around, the headpieces had dwindled to a measly five or so inches, which is the height most top hats are still at today.
10. SLASH DIDN'T PAY FOR HIS.
Slash, the most hardcore of top hat fans, admitted to the Huffington Post a few years ago that he actually shoplifted his iconic hat (along with the belt tied around it).
11. LINCOLN'S HAT FOILED AN ASSASSINATION ATTEMPT.
President Abraham Lincoln’s hat may have been his signature look, but it also may have saved his life. In 1864, someone fired a shot at Lincoln as he was riding a horse near his summer home, not too far from the White House. It knocked his hat off, and the soldiers who picked it up remarked it had a bullet hole in the top. Lincoln was wearing his trademark top hat the night he died as well, leaving it on the floor next to him during the performance at the Ford Theater.