Designer Throws His Hat Into the Ring; Creates a Sensation

by Ray Setterfield

Event Date: January 5, 1797
Location: London, England, United Kingdom

Fred Astaire hardly ever seemed to be without one and for men it seems to be the essential item of apparel at every formal occasion – from weddings to presidential inaugurations: the top hat.

And the man who gave it a head start into fame and fashion was haberdasher John Hetherington who, on this day, stepped out onto the streets of London wearing the distinctive headgear. It caused a sensation.

So much so that a crowd formed and Hetherington was eventually arrested and given a summons for disturbing the public peace. In court, found guilty of wearing a hat “calculated to frighten timid people”, he was bound over to keep the peace in consideration of a sum of 50 pounds.

The arresting officer told the court that nobody had seen anything like it before: “He had such a tall and shiny construction on his head that it must have terrified nervous people. The sight of this construction was so overstated that various women fainted, children began to cry and dogs started to bark. One child broke his arm among all the jostling.”

The next day, The Times newspaper reported: “Hetherington’s hat points to a significant advance in the transformation of dress. Sooner or later, everyone will accept this headwear. We believe that both the court and the police made a mistake here.”

The newspaper was right. The top hat, which went by several names including Toppers, Chimney Pots, and Stove Pipes, grew in popularity, finally achieving the ultimate stamp of respectability in 1850 when Prince Albert, no less, began to wear one, giving the headgear the royal seal of approval. There was no going back after that . . .

Published: April 25, 2016

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