Word of the Day

top hat



a man’s tall hat shaped like a tube with a narrow brim, worn on formal occasions

Origin and usage

The first recorded mention of a top hat dates from the 1880s. This type of hat is thought to have descended from the sugarloaf hat, a conical hat worn by both men and women from the late 16th century on. The top hat has many alternative names, including ‘high hat’, ‘silk hat’, ‘stove pipe hat’ and the informal ‘topper’. As one of its names suggests, the top hat was generally made of silk.


Top hats are rarely seen these days except on special occasions like society weddings and horse racing events attended by members of the royal family. There was a time, however, when no well-dressed man of a certain social standing would be seen in public without one. When we think of famous historical figures such as Abraham Lincoln, Isambard Kingdom Brunel or Neville Chamberlain, we probably picture them in a top hat as that is what they are wearing in the surviving photos of them. Most top hats were black, but Uncle Sam, the symbol of the United States, is depicted wearing a top hat in rather unconventional colours of red, white and blue.

A famous fictional wearer of a top hat is the Hatter from Lewis Carroll’s 1865 classic Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Although he is often referred to as the Mad Hatter Carroll never referred to him in that way, and the phrase ‘mad as a hatter’ predates the character. In the famous image by John Tenniel, the top hat worn by the Hatter carries the label ‘In this Style 10/6’, or ten shillings and sixpence, equivalent to about £60 today.


“It looks rather ordinary,” said the Snork. “Unless you consider that a top hat is always somewhat extraordinary, of course.”
(Tove Jansson, Finn Family Moonintroll)

Related words

bearskin, bowler hat, homburg

View the full definition in the Macmillan Dictionary.

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Macmillan Dictionary

Macmillan Dictionary

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