Hats raised

27th June 2003 at 01:00
The folly of fashion is familiar to anyone who has pulled tight jeans over sweaty flesh in a crowded changing room. But what of fear of fashion? For one image-conscious Georgian gentleman the feelings unusual garments can provoke nearly proved his undoing.

On February 17, 1797, John Hetherington ventured out from his establishment in London's Strand to show off his new creation in public. He might have worried that he would be ignored. He might have hoped for some modest praise and interest in his design. But what actually happened must have convinced him he had made a terrible mistake.

A crowd gathered. There was pushing and shoving. According to one newspaper report, people started to panic. Several women fainted, children screamed, dogs barked and a boy's arm got broken.

This disastrous affray saw Hetherington hauled before the Lord Mayor and bound over for pound;500 for causing a breach of the peace. His crime was to have worn "a tall structure having a shining lustre calculated to frighten timid people". It was a top hat.

Hetherington, who was a haberdasher, had simply taken the contemporary riding hat, narrowed the brim, heightened the crown, and covered it with silk rather than beaver. (This act was eventually to kill off the beaver-trapping industry in the States.) These days he might be suspected of staging an elaborate stunt as the publicity the riot attracted saw orders for top hats start to pour in. By 1850 even Prince Albert was sporting one. The craze spread to France where toppers were known as Incroyables. Les hommes wore structures of such unbelievable dimensions that there was no room for them in overcrowded cloakrooms.

For nearly 100 years, the upper classes balanced Hetherington's creation on their heads until it eventually bowed out to the smaller Homburg. There wasn't a riot when that was introduced, though whether humanity has really grown more fashion tolerant is dubious. Baseball caps the wrong way round attract frowns from the older generation while their grandchildren (and the French) still look in horror at knotted hankies on heads sur la plage.

Hat Works museum, page 39

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