Over the weekend, the riding world was rocked when British Eventing, the national governing body for equestrian, announced a ban on the top hat.
Since the 1912 Olympics, these formal, flat-crowned hats have been proudly worn by riders as they compete in dressage, showjumping and cross country events. But now, the top hat has been toppled, and from March it will be banned from all national events.
And it is not only the horse riding arena that has seen these top-notch noggin-toppers fall out of favour. Private schools, such as Eton College, removed top hats from their compulsory uniform lists as early as 1948, and have seen the iconic accessory decline in popularity ever since.
No longer a mainstay of the wedding party, and absent from many heads on their way to the races, what was once an everyday accessory, and then an indicator of sartorial sophistication, has barely made it into the 21st Century – and is now just clinging on by the edge of its brim.
So what happened to the hat? What toppled the topper? And what led to this emblem of elegance backsliding so badly that it now graces the heads of undertakers, doormen and stage magicians alone?
“In purely sartorial terms,” says Simon Maloney, Marketing Director of Eton-based tailors New & Lingwood, “it’s a shame that it is no longer part of the college’s uniform – as it was such a distinctive element.
“But Eton is now a far more egalitarian institution,” Maloney continues. “When the top hat was thriving, men who wore it worked in industries such as the stock market, and it was part of a uniform, a code or signifier of class.
“But Eton now have a strong charitable foundation and a robust and healthy scholarship system, so the top hat wouldn’t really be appropriate nowadays. It might even become the cause of ridicule or scorn.”
Maloney may be right – in an increasingly politically-correct society, adding height to your person so you literally look down on those less well-off than you is probably a no-go.
But, surely, if that were the case, it would be preferable to retire the topper altogether – rather than demoting it to the dressing up box, and leaving a once-great garment to the mercy of circus ringleaders, the Monopoly man and, regrettably, Slash.
Roger Stephenson, Deputy Chairman of world-renowned Lock & Co Hatters in St. James’s, reveals that the majority of their top hat sales are for formal occasions including Royal Ascot and garden parties. Top hats for riding, he adds, were declining before this most recent ban.
“We don’t sell as many grey top hats as we used to,” says Stephenson, “as black now seems to be the norm – and, to be honest, black looks much more stylish.”
The hatter tells me that, until the late 1960s, top hats were made from silk plush – a rare material no longer available. Modern hats are made from rabbit fur felt and, although there is a massive demand for the vintage silk top hats, these originals have transcended from everyday accessories into artefacts of interest, objet d’art.
“We’ve also seen top hats become shorter over the years,” Stephenson muses, “going from the ‘stovepipe hat’ of Victorian times to the shape and size of top hats we see today”.
So, even without the blocks and bans the top hat is increasingly subjected to, does the gradual shrinking Lock & Co have observed suggest that the they would have quietly faded away in the end anyway?
Hopefully not, because – as any self-respecting gentleman knows – there is a time and a place for the most formal of formalwear. The time for the top hat being an everyday item may have passed, but we mustn’t allow it to shorten down completely and disappear. Like white tie and tailcoats, the top hat will always be important – so let’s stop devaluing it.
No more rabbits should be pulled from their depths. No more should they be reduced to antiques to be traded and never worn. No more should fancy dress American Presidents pop flocked or plastic imitations on their heads. To save these hats, they must remain where they belong; at the peak of the pile, the crowning glories – in short, on top.