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Top hat

  • Place of origin:

    London (made)

  • Date:

    1900-1910 (made)

  • Artist/Maker:

    James Lock & Co. (maker)

  • Materials and Techniques:

    Silk plush, wool, lined with satin, card

  • Credit Line:

    Bequeathed by Lady Beerbohm

  • Museum number:


  • Gallery location:

    British Galleries, Room 125b, case 3 []

Object Type
Top hats were tall, high-crowned hats with a narrow brim usually slightly rolled up at the sides. In the 19th century they were usually black, but sporting varieties might be grey or brown. Light off-white colours were worn with sporting dress from about 1820, and during the 1830s and 1840s were fashionable for general wear.

In the early 19th century the top hat was the predominant type of headwear in a gentleman's wardrobe. It reached its peak of popularity during the 1840s and 1850s, when mass manufacturing and industrialisation brought fashionable dress within the reach of a much wider section of the population. During the second half of the century new informal styles, such as the straw boater and soft felt hat, as well as the more formal bowler hat, challenged the predominance of the top hat.

Ownership & Use
By the 1880s the top hat was relegated to more formal occasions when a gentleman would wear a frock or tail coat. Manners for Men, by Mrs Humphry ('Madge of Truth'), reported:

'Frequently a silk hat is never seen between Sunday and Sunday. Churchgoers still, to a certain extent, affect it, but in these days of outdoor life, bicycling, and so on, the costume worn by men in church is experiencing the same modifications that characterise it in other department.'

Design & Designing
The shape of the top hat appeared at the end of the 18th century. It changed in shape over time and a range of different styles appeared as the century progressed. The gibus or collapsible top hat came into fashion in the 1840s and was often worn with evening dress. It was made of corded silk or cloth over a metal framework which sprung open with a flick of the wrist. It could easily be carried under the arm, making it more convenient for an evening at the opera or theatre than the rigid top hats. Some top hats had ventilation holes in the crown.

Materials & Making
In the late 18th century and first half of the 19th century top hats were known as 'beavers'. This is because they were made of felted beaver fur wool. In 1862 Henry Mayhew's London Labour and the London Poor reported that 'the bodies of beaver hats are made of a firm felt wrought up of fine wool, rabbit's hair etc. ... over this is placed the nap prepared from the hair of the beaver.' The processes used to create the beaver hats involved the use of mercury. Contact with mercury often had detrimental effects on the hatters and led to the phrase 'mad as a hatter'. By the late 19th century most top hats were made of silk.

Physical description

Top hat made of black silk plush, and with a fairly low crown. With a black woollen band. The brim is faced with woollen cloth and has a silk binding. Lined with white satin.

Hat box, rectangular, and covered with black leather card.

Place of Origin

London (made)


1900-1910 (made)


James Lock & Co. (maker)

Materials and Techniques

Silk plush, wool, lined with satin, card


Height: 17.5 cm, Width: 26 cm, Length: 32 cm

Object history note

Made by Lock & Co., Hatters, St. James's Sreet, London

Worn by the writer Sir Max Beerbohm (1872-1956)

Descriptive line

Top hat of silk plush and card hat box, James Lock & Co., London, 1900-1910

Labels and date

British Galleries:
By the end of the 19th century there was a hat for every occasion. Top hats were correct for formal day or evening dress though men no longer wore them so much during the day. The best were lightweight, with a deep shine. [27/03/2003]


Hats & headwear; Accessories; Men's clothes; Fashion; Textiles; Europeana Fashion Project


Textiles and Fashion Collection

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