On this day in history : 15th January 1797 – John Hetherington, a London haberdasher wears his new top hat for the first time….and causes a riot….

As he stepped out onto the streets of London, wearing his hat in the shape of a stove-pipe, a large crowd gathered around him…. Soon such chaos broke out in the jostling mass that an officer of the law had to intervene…. He grabbed Hetherington by the collar and hauled him off to appear before the Court – on a charge of ‘breach of the peace’ and ‘inciting a riot’….

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Hetherington had reportedly “appeared on the public highway wearing upon his head what he called a silk hat (which was shiny lustre and calculated to frighten timid people)”…. The Court was told that several ladies had fainted, children screamed and dogs yelped…. The young son of Cordwainer Thomas had even been pushed to the ground by the crowd and his right arm broken….

The haberdasher used in his defence that it was the right of every Englishman to wear whatever he chose upon his head…. He was fined the hefty sum of £500….(over £60,000 in today’s terms)….

The Times newspaper wrote the following day….“Hetherington’s hat points to a significant advance in the transformation of dress. Sooner or later, everyone will accept this headwear, we believe that both the Court and the police made a mistake here”….

This story first appeared in the Hatters’ Gazette during the late 1890s…. Stories can get twisted – John Hetherington is often erroneously credited with inventing the top hat….

This style of hat had actually been worn since the 16th Century – but it was in the 1790s that it was first covered in silk plush…. The first silk hat can be credited to George Dunnage, a hatter from Middlesex…. Who knows, perhaps Mr. Hetherington was a customer of his….

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Henry Duke of Gloucester in Eton dress in 1914 – Image via Bain News Service, publisher

The Times was right though…. Sooner or later the top hat was accepted….largely because it was championed by famous English ‘dandy’ George ‘Beau’ Brummel…. George was a close friend of the Prince Regent, George IV – and known in Society for his trend-setting style…. Whereas most men of the day were still wearing the flamboyant, decadent fashions of the time, George Brummel chose to wear elegant, simple, tailored attire; beautifully cut jackets and breeches, with spotless, crisp white shirts…. He completed this ensemble with the ‘beaver’ – a new form of the top hat – so-called because its felt was made from the fur of a beaver….

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George ‘Beau’ Brummell – watercolour by Richard Dighton (1805)

Between 1800-1850 top hats were much taller, with straight sides – and were often called ‘stovepipe hats’…. Some were so tall they could reach 20cm high….

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Image credit : oakenwood via flickr

Around 1837 through to 1901 the height reduced, to typically between 16cm-17cm ~ and around 1890 the crown enlarged…. It was some thirty or so years later that the height reduced again, to between 12cm-13cm high – and this remains the same today….

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David Lloyd George and Winston Churchill 1907

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