High & Mighty: The Riotous History of the Top Hat

Ra1 If one were asked to name an object or symbol that encapsulates British style and respectability throughout the ages, one might light upon any one of a number: the Crown, the Penny Black, the Union Flag – or possibly the top hat.

Sitting as it does at the apex of gentlemen’s formal attire, it is surely the apogee of the milliner’s art and synonymous with the elegance of Royal Ascot.

Though the topper might these days call to mind archly conservative Victorian statesmen and seem to the modern gentleman the very definition of ‘traditional’, such has not always been the case. If we are to believe an article printed in the Huddersfield Chronicle on 24th January 1899, this stalwart sartorial accessory quite literally sparked a riot when it was first introduced.

A certain John Hetherington, so the story goes, was the first to wear a silken specimen in January 1797. He was promptly arrested on a charge of breach of the peace and incitement to riot: ‘It was in evidence that Mr Hetherington, who is well connected, appeared on the public highway wearing upon his head what he called a silk hat (which was offered in evidence), a tall structure having a shiny lustre, and calculated to frighten timid people… [T]he officers of the crown stated that several women fainted at the unusual sight, while children screamed, dogs yelped, and a younger son of Cordwainer Thomas, who was returning from a chandler’s shop, was thrown down by the crowd which had collected, and had his right arm broken…’

‘In extenuation of his crime the defendant claimed that he had not violated any law of the kingdom, but was merely exercising a right to appear in a head-dress of his own design – a right not denied to any Englishman.’

However one might applaud Mr Hetherington’s staunch defence, such scenes are thankfully a far cry from the highly civilised and incomparably peaceful surroundings of the Royal Enclosure (whence, as it happens, the grey top hat is said to originate). Perhaps, then, the august institution’s famous dress code is designed not only to preserve dignity but, in extremis, even to preserve life and limb.