Fuck you, Elvis. Fuck you for stopping men from wearing hats – and top hats in particular.
I mean, to be fair, it was Elvis and JFK who stifled this fashion. There’s actually a great scene in Mad Men that addresses the rise of youth culture. Roger says, “Nobody will vote for Kennedy. Have you seen him? He doesn’t even wear a hat.” Pete, a younger member at the firm replies, “Elvis doesn’t wear a hat.”
Pete is correct. By the late 1960s, no one remotely cool was going to be wearing a hat.
If you like history, Pete is by far the most fun character to listen to on Mad Men, because, despite being a douchebag, he accurately predicts the outcome of every major world event. But no one listens to him because everyone hates him, and that is why Pete is my favorite character.
But I really think you’re getting me a little off track here.
What you may not know is that disdaining hats was probably the most rebellious Elvis or JFK ever got, not including music or politics. Or sex. The top hat was first created at the end of the 18th century, when fashionable dandies were attempting to outdo one another with outrageous fashion statements. These days, it is exceedingly exciting if men wear any accessory whatsoever, but people tried harder then. Also, there was no television, so they didn’t have much to do.
In January 1797, a certain Hetherington appeared in the streets of London. The hat maker walked along the thoroughfare wearing a top hat in the shape of a stovepipe. Within a short time, a large crowd had gathered around him. There was such chaos that the ‘officer of the law’ grabbed Hetherington by the collar and summonsed him before the court. He was accused of disturbing public order.
The officer, who dealt with the scandal, described the offence as follows: “Hetherington had such a tall and shiny construction on his head that it must have terrified nervous people. The sight of this construction was so overstated that various women fainted, children began to cry and dogs started to bark. One child broke his arm among all the jostling.”
The hat maker relied in his defense on the right of every Englishman to place what he wanted on his head.
The Times defended him saying, “Sooner or later, everyone will accept this head wear. We believe that both the court and the police made a mistake here.”
Yes, a child’s arm was broken, but after this uproar every fashionable man in England wanted a top hat. By around 1810, a certain set of dandies known as “Incroyables” were wearing top hats so high that cloakrooms began having trouble holding them. By 1812, the collapsible top hat was invented, and soon they were a wardrobe staple.
By the mid 19th century policemen had begun wearing them – ironic considering the whole fashion started with a riot and a trial.
In America, by the 1860s President Lincoln wore one. It’s actually hard to imagine Abraham Lincoln without his hat. He would have been less able to function without it, considering that he used it to store notes, letters and bills. Did you see Lincoln? I didn’t see Lincoln. But I’m hoping Daniel Day Lewis worked that trivia in.
After Lincoln’s assassination in 1865 his famous top hat was sent to the Smithsonian Institution, where the Secretary told his staff “under any circumstance, not to mention the matter to any one, on account of there being so much excitement.”
They were afraid it would cause, yet again, a riot. That is what top hats do.
Or they lead to murderous thoughts. In Crime and Punishment Raskolnikov initially wears a top hat – because he’s bohemian! – but takes it off when he murders the pawnbroker, because he worried it would be too unorthodox in 1860’s Russia, and thus might make him too memorable.
Top hats remained popular into the early 20th century, gradually being used for increasingly formal occasions. Today, well, today they’re back to being worn by eccentrics, like the ” “Inner Circle” of the Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, Groundhog Club who wear top hats on February 2 of every year when they cavort with Phil.
Oh. And Slash. From Guns ‘n’ Roses. Apparently he appreciates them too, because unlike Raskolnikov, rock stars are very comfortable standing out in a crowd.
With any luck, they’ll be causing riots again in no time.
Picture via Wikipedia