Steampunk inspiration and resources

Hats Off to the Top Hat

I tell you, there aren’t nearly enough hats in our everyday lives. Sure, there are beanies and baseball caps, but on the whole your average snowman is better dressed than today’s most fashionable males. Luckily, there is Steampunk, which gives all gents (and ladies) a chance to step up their millinery game.

TopHatBTNSwimClub1860sThe top hat’s origins are fuzzy, but many fashion historians believe it was an evolution from something called the “sugarloaf hat,” but we would probably say it was a “pilgrim hat” nowadays (minus the apocryphal buckle, that is). In the transition from loaf to “high hat” (aka silk hat, topper, cylinder hat, stovepipe hat, chimney pot hat) the whole thing became more rigid and the brim retreated. Like the early Stetsons, top hats were often made from beaver, but later silk also became de rigueure.

Top hats were made through a process known as blocking, where the hatter started with a wooden frame and draped it with a material such as gossamer which was then covered in shellac and ammonia, and left to cure for several weeks even months. Later, felt was cut and applied to the frame and a hot iron helped to re-melt the shellac and attach the fabric to the frame. If the hat was meant for use in the country for activities such as hunting and horseback riding, the gossamer layer would be much thicker to add durability. Most toppers also had a leather band on the inside to catch sweat and keep the hat from moving around too much.

victorianridingclothingWomen would also sometimes wear top hats in the steam era, and you see plenty of it in Steampunk and burlesque fashion nowadays. In the city it was not so regular an occurrence, but while out riding women would sometimes wear a smaller version of the top hat that often had a veil.

Top hats were considered both day and evening wear, which may seem strange to us now. If we see a man sporting this type of hat he is more than likely wearing a tuxedo (and perhaps tap-dancing in a throwback, Broadway musical.) The British royal family and some of their officials do continue to wear top hats for certain events, such as attending horse-racing and certain ceremonies.

7c2195f5df082758636302dfce5595b0One of the features you often see in Steampunk attire is a top hat with goggles resting on the brim. In reality, there wouldn’t be that many occasions when a gent would be wearing both a topper and goggles. Goggles were certainly used while driving and perhaps ballooning, but that aerodynamics of a top hat would make it a poor choice for this type of activity. But, Steampunk is an aesthetic, not historical fact, and the goggles look pretty sweet no matter if they are on the brim, on one’s face or hanging around one’s neck anywho.

Other Steampunk adaptations include clock faces and hands, raucous colors, alternative materials, and other aesthetically pleasing, though not wholly practical, adornments, such as corset strings. Here are some fun Steampunk top hats I found around the interwebs. Enjoy!


5 responses

  1. These top hats are pretty swell, but I will stick with my derby/bowler.
    Thanks for the article, Phoebe.


    December 14, 2015 at 8:10 am

  2. A good article. Regarding the origins of the top hat, I wanted to share this anecdote from A Brief History of Life in Victorian England by Michael Paterson:

    The top hat maintained its dominance throughout the century. It had first been worn in London in 1797, causing such outrage by its strange appearance (no less than four women fainted on seeing it in the street) that its owner, John Hetherington, was charged with breach of the peace and ordered by a magistrate not to appear in it again. Within a very few years it had become universal both in Britain and abroad. The version worn by gentlemen was of beaver pelt – which was prohibitively expensive – but by the start of the Victorian era hatters had discovered the secret of using hardened silk instead. Prince Albert popularized the silk ‘topper’ which, over a decade or so, effectively killed off the beaver hat.

    I also like how Paterson goes on to list the many benefits of the top hat, including that it could be used to store papers and books, could be used as an emergency writing desk when placed on the lap, and that Charles Dickens once said that he knew a man who kept a large meat pie in his.


    December 14, 2015 at 12:39 pm

  3. Pingback: Hats Off to the Top Hat | Cogpunk Steamscribe

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