If the bowler connoted a more democratic future, the top hat, most certainly represented, in the words of hat historian Colin McDowell, "… the power of political conservatism and the rule of the status quo." The top hat traces its origins to the tall sugar loaf hats of the late Middle Ages and Renaissance. After an 18th Century hiatus where the tricorne and bicorn (also known as the cocked hat) supplanted the high hat as the fashion of the day, the high hat, in its new iterations, most notable the stove pipe shape that we now know as the top hat, returned to rule the day in the very late 1700s. It's reputation was firmly established when, in 1890, the St. James Gazette wrote, "When we are told, 'He's a fellow who wears a top hat and a frock coat', we know sufficiently well what sort of fellow he is." When Edgar Degas paints his series of Portraits at the Stock Exchange, he is certainly commenting on this stuffy, out of touch, segment of society. Of course, Freudian psychologists had their own interpretations on these hats and those who wore them regarding them as obvious phallic symbols.
As funny and impractical as top hats
may seem to our modern ideas on fashion, they have stood the test of time. True, after the advent of the automobile at the beginning of the 20th Century, and the top hat's impractical fit (literally and figuratively) in the Modern Age, the top hat's popularity did wane. Never the less, this hat is a survivor. High school seniors seek them out at prom time. Undertakers and Christmas carolers still wear top hats as an integral segment of their dress. The hat comes out at weddings and at big days at the races. The collapsible opera hat
, also known as the Gibus, named after its inventor Frenchman Antoine Gibus, is still sufficiently popular that a New York manufacturer has a successful business today with this style hat as its sole output. And Uncle Sam
, symbol of democratic America, for some reason still prefers a top hat — perhaps with all its elitist connotations, the top hat was still a move in the right direction from the crown.