The Historic Top hat

Top Hats are part of formal dress for foxhunting

Three hundred years ago hats were considered to be protective headgear for the hunt field. While you don’t see too many top hats today, some of the same hatmakers are still in business and still producing bespoke (custom) head gear.

The top hat was designed specifically as a crash helmet for the hunting field. Tall and stiffened by impregnating laminated twill and calico with shellac, the topper provided a degree of shock absorption in the event of a fall. It was often attached to the collar of the coat by a black or scarlet cord in case it became dislodged from the head by a low hanging branch.

In the mid-nineteenth century, one William Coke of Norfolk, annoyed at having his top hat repeatedly knocked from his head while hunting, went to a hatter of the Bowler family to have a new hard hat designed. The lower, rounded crown was stiffened with shellac, and a wide leather band with an adjustable draw cord was provided on the inside to establish a safety space between the top of the head and the crown of the hat. The bowler hat has also been known as the “billycock” for William Coke.

Norm Fine, Foxhunting Life

The two top hat makers for top hats are, not surprisingly, in London. Locke & Co. has been designing and selling high-quality hats since 1676 and S. Patey, founded in 1695 and known as the hatmaker to the Queen, which merged with PROtector in 2016. Bespoke Patey riding hats, hunt caps, bowlers and top hats are still handmade in England.

Take a look at how custom hats are made — with very little having changed over hundreds of years. Except for the protection part — Patey actually makes a top hat with a protective shell inside, for those who want the look of history with the protection available today.

3 thoughts on “The Historic Top hat

  1. Honestly, I am hoping that the bowler and the top hat both disappear, especially when it comes to dressage. They just look…silly. Helmets aren’t very pretty, but at least they’re more protective than a top hat.

    That picture! Holy cow, there must be a hundred horsemen there. The poor fox never had a chance.

    1. I’ve never been tempted to wear a top hat — not in dressage, and especially not foxhunting — but I was fascinated to discover that it was designed to protect the head. Not much, of course. There’s actually a new material being considered for protective helmets that sounds very interesting. Going to write about that soon.

      I’ve never hunted live — most hunts near me are drag, which is fine because I like the sport of following the hounds as opposed to killing a fox.

  2. I had no idea that the fox was even killed in the US!! I know they did…and perhaps still do, in the UK, maybe Ireland, too. I wish they didn’t. The fox is just being a fox. I’m sure you’ve seen Landseer’s famous painting of a fox brought to bay…the poor thing is utterly terrified. Can’t blame it, as it’s about to be torn to pieces.

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