M969.22.5 | "Gibus" opera hat
1870-1890, 19th century
Gift from Mr. R. H. Gaunt
© McCord Museum
Keywords: Hat (72)
Keys to History
The top hat was a French invention that by the 1840s had changed from a fashion novelty to a status symbol for bourgeois men. The top hat symbolized respectability, wealth, dignity and social standing: High and imposing, it made men look taller and "handsome."
Since the top hat was an essential accessory for evening dress, it was worn to the theatre or opera, where it was often crushed when placed under the seat. This problem was solved by the invention of the "Gibus" opera hat - a top hat that could be collapsed and easily stored. The first collapsible form of the top hat appeared in 1812, but it was perfected by the French inventor Antoine Gibus in 1840.
Still considered a symbol of distinction in the late 19th century, the top hat was even standard uniform for police officers, postmen and railway service personnel.
This Gibus is made from corded silk and satin, sewn both by machine and by hand, over a metal frame which includes springs that allow the crown of the hat to fold into the brim.
Men wore top hats for business, pleasure and formal occasions - pearl grey in the daytime or black for any time of day.
Men who wished to improve their appearance but could not afford a new top hat would rent one or buy one second-hand. Versions made of papier maché were also available.
At the beginning of the 20th century, articles appeared in London newspapers suggesting that the wearing of a top hat, and the ideas of social superiority associated with it, were outdated. It was even suggested that the Prince of Wales, the future King Edward VII, should lead the way and stop wearing the hat.