High headgear From the 1800s, feminist author Mary Wollstonecraft, above, Count d’Orsay (likely prototype of The New Yorker’s fictitious mascot Eustace Tilley), center, and Count Robert de Montesquiou. Photos provided

A High Art, a Higher Hat

The brilliant career of the top hat

By Edward Tenner


My quest for the top hat began over 25 years ago, when Harvard Magazine displayed a photograph of a magnificent silk specimen, still worn by a member of Harvard’s Honorable and Reverend Board of Overseers, as a cover illustration for my essay on headgear, “Talking through Our Hats.” I had begun the piece by invoking this object, and shortly thereafter, a woman in Michigan, wife of a Harvard alumnus, offered to send me a silk hat from her attic. It arrived soon thereafter, in its original box, with the label of a shop in Albany, New York in 1846. I began to investigate its riddles. How was the silk manufactured? What made it so popular when it was often impractically high? Some day I hope to organize an exhibition that will at last do justice to this uncannily durable object. Meanwhile, here is a preview of its spectacular metamorphoses.

The top hat took shape in the aftermath of the French Revolution, a variant of the practical “round hat” worn by country gentlemen for riding and hunting. One of the best representations is Jean-Louis David’s portrait of his brother-in-law, Pierre Sériziat, in the Louvre.

Read the rest of this story in the Fall 2015 issue of Artenol. Order yours today

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