A Tip of the Hat: Formal Headwear

Posted on January 15, 2012

I just finished writing a detailed history of formal hats for the Vintage section of the Guide and thought I’d share some of the more interesting facts here.

  •  Top hats have been the standard headgear with tailcoats since the early Victorian era and were originally made of either silk or beaver fur.
  • Collapsible versions of the top hat were devised so the hat could be stored under one’s seat at the opera or theatre rather than dealing with the hassle (and often careless handling) of the coat check.   These were known as crush or opera hats.
  • When the dinner jacket was invented most fashion and etiquette authorities argued that a tall hat should not be worn with a short coat and instead prescribed a black derby or alpine hat.  However a number of experts including Emily Post called for the top hat to be worn with tuxedos right up until the 1950s.
  • Some early experts felt that soft felt hats (such as the alpine or fedora) were not formal enough for evening wear and should be limited to business attire.
  • The homburg became accepted as the default black-tie hat beginning in the 1930s, combining the stiffness of the formal top hat and the elegance of the everyday fedora.
  • Midnight-blue homburgs like the vintage example shown above were especially fashionable in the tuxedo’s heyday.
  • Although there are historical references to “tuxedo” hats, the term was applied indiscriminately to homburgs and fedoras.
  • Straw boaters (with black bands) were acceptable for warm-weather black tie.

Although men’s headwear has been optional since the 1970s those gentlemen who enjoy topping off a good suit with a smart hat (as I’m inclined to do) will find that the homburg’s skillful balance of formality and restraint remains the most appropriate choice for wear with the tuxedo.