A La Mode – Part Five

The Top Hat

I am partial to wearing a hat but I have never had the occasion to wear a silk topper. These days their appearance seems to be limited to weddings with pretensions to grandeur, the Royal enclosure at Ascot and investitures at Buckingham Palace. My chances of wearing one seem pretty remote.

When, to echo the Kinks, you are a dedicated follower of fashion and bestride its cutting edge, you must be prepared for an adverse reaction from those who don’t share your sense of style. Even so, perhaps John Herrington, a clothier based in London’s Strand, didn’t quite expect the reaction that greeted his saunter along the streets of London in early January 1797.

According to the Hatters’ Gazette in the late 1890s, echoing a story that is supposed to have appeared in The St James’ Gazette of 1797 – alas, the original story cannot be traced – he appeared “on the public highway, wearing upon his head a tall structure having a shiny lustre and calculated to frighten timid people…several women fainted at the unusual sight, while children screamed, dogs yelped and a younger son of Cordwainer Thomas was thrown down by the crowd which collected and had his right arm broken.

Worse was to follow for poor Herrington. He had his exquisitely tailored collar felt and was up before the beak on 15th January 1797, charged with a breach of the peace and inciting a riot. For his sins he was required to post a bond for the phenomenal sum of £500. Some versions of the story suggest that he was the inventor of the silk top hat or top hats in general whilst others, given the length of time that lapsed between the incident occurring and the first demonstrable version of the story in the press, have called it a shaggy dog story.

Hats were part of a fashionable man’s apparel and beaver hats, made from felted beaver fur which could be combed into a variety of shapes, were in vogue between 1550 and 1850. Tall, cylindrical hats appear in images throughout the centuries so it is difficult to pin point exactly when the silk topper was first made or why Hetherington’s topper caused such a stir. But there is some evidence to suggest that the development of a silk plush as an alternative to beaver, at least in England, did not predate Hetherington’s ill-fated walk by many years.

In 1794 George Dunnage received a patent for a form of hat featuring a napped, silk shag and in 1798 he was awarded another patent, this time for a ventilating top hat made of waterproof silk which was particularly suitable for coachmen riding atop of their carriage. The firm, Dunnage and Larkin, traded as patent silk manufacturers until 1814. The Piccadilly based milliner, Lincoln Bennett, was also an early pioneer in the development of silk plush and almost certainly would have made silk top hats.

So although Hetherington almost didn’t invent the silk topper, it is entirely plausible that he was one of the first to be brave enough to wear one in public in London. The shiny surface, such a contrast to the dull and dirty clothing that the hoi polloi had to wear, was enough to spark a reaction. Perhaps he just wasn’t very popular.

Ironically, today’s toppers are made of beaver, the last factory making silk hatters’ plush, in Lyons in France, closing in 1969. Legend has it that the two brothers had a major bust up in the process of which they smashed up the looms and threw them into the river. More likely the factory was closed down because of ‘Elf and Safety concerns around the manufacturing process.

Urban myth and top hats seem to go hand in hand.

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