The top hat was invented by John Hetherington, a haberdasher of the Strand, London. What he called a “silk hat” was a variation on the standard male riding hat of the day, and made from beaver covered in silk.
On the first day he took to the streets wearing it (15th January 1797), he [supposedly] ended up being arraigned before the Lord Mayor on a charge of breach of the peace and incitement to riot. The order had resulted from his wearing “a tall structure having a shiny lustre and calculated to frighten timid people”.
It was said that women feinted at the sight of his headgear, children screamed, dogs yelped, and a young boy suffered a broken arm in the ensuing scrum. Hetherington was compelled to pay a £500 bond to keep the peace. In his defence he said he had not broken any law “but was merely exercising a right to appear in a headdress of his own design - a right not denied to any Englishman”.
It didn’t catch on overnight. Indeed, the topper’s dominance as the gentleman’s headwear for formal occasions wasn’t really established until Prince Albert started to favour it 50 years later.
[Words taken from a scanned article by Eugene Byrne]
A 19th century gentleman’s top hat made of straw. At the beginning of Queen Victoria’s reign men’s clothing was much more colourful than the sombre suits of the later 19th century. Bright blue coats, yellow trousers and vibrant embroidered waistcoats were a common sight and top hats could be grey, white or even made of straw in summer.