Vintage Evening Outerwear
Top Hat (White Tie)
At the turn of the
nineteenth century the chapeau bras was the only hat for evening
dress. Also known as a bicorne, it was a crescent shaped
headpiece like the one made famous by Napoleon but was specifically
designed as a collapsible hat to be carried under the arm – thus its
French name “arm hat”. The tall “round hats” worn as daywear were
impractical in comparison because they were awkward to carry at a
ball and had to be checked at the opera or theater.
That all changed when a collapsible version of the round hat
was invented in 1812 which allowed gentlemen to store their headwear
under their seats.
English top hat styles from an 1830 etiquette book.
Acceptable at first only for
informal evening events, tall hat styles became increasingly popular
as full-dress attire in the 1820s with the arrival in England of the
French top hat. The standard top hat was made of black silk plush
(a pile longer and less dense than velvet pile) or felted beaver fur
while early collapsible versions were generally made of the former
An interesting comparison of
silk and beaver fur was offered in the 1830 British etiquette book
The Whole Art of Dress.
It explained that up to that point beaver was preferred over silk by
the nobility and gentry because it was lighter and more pliable thus
allowing a wider variety of shapes.
However silk hats had recently become available in lighter
weights and a variety of shapes and had the advantage of being much
more durable than beaver and of retaining their gloss indefinitely
while beaver “turns quite brown and looks very shabby”. They
were also half the price of beaver.
Circa 1870-1890 corded silk and satin gibus.
||1892 silk plush hat made in Montreal.
||Victorian-era beaver top hat.
At the dawn of the Victorian
era conduct guides such as the American Handbook of the Man of Fashion were still
prescribing a chapeau bras for dances or large evening parties
because “to carry a common hat on such occasions, as is done by some
awkward imitators of fashion, is clumsy and absurd.”
Despite this, by the 1840s the top hat “had changed from a
fashion novelty to a status symbol for bourgeois men,” explains the
McCord Museum's Web site. “The top hat symbolized respectability,
wealth, dignity and social standing: High and imposing, it made men
look taller and ‘handsome.” Consequently, when Antoine Gibus
perfected the collapsible version of the top hat in 1840 the
resulting gibus hat quickly became the most popular headwear after
The black top hat
remained de rigeur for evening dress throughout the
Victorian era with silk models becoming the standard material by the
mid century thanks to their adoption by Prince Albert and the
depletion of the North American beaver. The
collapsible version of the top hat – which took on the nicknames
crush hat and opera hat – also continued to be a common evening
option until the Edwardian era when it began to be considered old
Following World War One the
top hat’s tendency to become shoddy after a night at the theater or
the ball resulted in a declining popularity until the early 1930s
when Apparel Arts reported that the trend was reversing.
The periodical also noted the return of the opera hat which
in America was now typically made of fine ribbed silk while in
England and Europe it was usually constructed of merino cloth.
High silk hat from 1932 issue of Men's Wear.
||Collapsible opera hat of merino from same
||"Crusher" hat from 1935 ad for
Although the Second World
War brought about another relaxation of fashion standards, etiquette
manuals continued to recommend both the silk hat and opera hat with
white tie right through the 1950s with one of them going so far as
to say in 1952 that "If you don't own a black silk hat or an opera
hat don't wear tails at all."
By mid century though, the black homburg was increasingly
accepted as an alternative on both sides of the Atlantic and by the
‘60s going hatless was also a legitimate alternative.
It wasn’t until the 1970s that the tables were turned and
experts considered any type of hat to be optional instead of
Expert advice regarding
black-tie headwear was distinctly schizophrenic at first.
In the tuxedo’s early years most etiquette authorities
dictated that tall hats were exclusively for long coats and that low
hats should be worn with the short dinner jacket.
(“Silk is considered bad taste,” said A Dictionary of Men’s
Wear in 1908, “opera hat the height of vulgarity.”)
However, there were a significant number of authorities in
both the UK and the US that disagreed and specifically
prescribed the top hat for all evening wear.
This advice continued as late as the 1950s when Emily Post, a
longtime stalwart, finally conceded defeat.
Excerpt from a 1931 ad that illustrated a tuxedo with a top
hat despite recommending a homburg in the copy.
Dinner jacket worn with a bowler, 1912.
Carrying a fedora, 1928.
Even amongst the members of
the first camp there was further disagreement as to which low hats
were appropriate for evening wear.
Up until the early 1930s most tended to favor the black
stiff derby (sometimes called a bowler in the US) or the black alpine.
Others argued soft felt hats such as the alpine or fedora
were suitable only for business wear.
The low hat debate was
largely settled with the acceptance of the homburg in the 1930s, a
style which combined the stiffness of the top hat and the elegance
of the fedora. Whether
in black or fashionable midnight blue it remained the preferred
black-tie hat up until the 1950s.
By that point the Second World War’s reduction of formality
meant soft felt hats were becoming increasingly accepted as an
alternative. Finally, just as
with white tie, going hatless became an option in the 1960s until
the practice grew in popularity to the point where it became the new
norm in the 1970s.
Homburgs have stiffed curled brims and grosgrain
||Homburg shown with
||Actual vintage midnight-blue
homburg from Dobbs.
Evening Cloaks / Opera Cloaks
Cloaks were standard outerwear during the English Regency and
versions worn with full dress incorporated luxurious linings and
trimmings such as colored silk, velvet and fur. They were
employed by men and women as a fashion statement or to protect the
fine fabrics of their evening wear from the elements, especially where a
coat would crush or hide the garments. As they were particularly
popular with formal opera-going attire they were often referred to
as opera cloaks. These flamboyant vestments began to fall out
of fashion in the 1840s with the advent of the more somber Victorian
age and the rising popularity of the hybrid Inverness coat
that featured a short shoulder cape.
1823 French "manteau
collet de loutre" (otter collar coat)
||1852 English Talma
cloak worn with evening dress.
||1948 American "evening
mid-nineteenth century the evening cloak made only sporadic
appearances in dress guidelines published by fashion and etiquette
authorities. One of the last detailed references can be found
in Amy Vanderbilt’s 1952 etiquette book:
Black satin-lined evening cape, an elegant garment, is still
seen on gentlemen who take their clothes very seriously and who like
to keep alive the niceties of Victorian dress. Usually
tailored to measure but sometimes featured by the best men's shops
in lush seasons. Once you own it, you can presumably wear the same
cape the rest of your life with complete confidence.
In the late 1950s formal cloaks – by now called “capes” in America -
were featured in a few issues of GQ and Esquire
despite the fact that the corresponding white-tie rig was rarely
seen outside of highly ceremonial occasions. Accordingly, in the late 1960s these same
publishers declared the garment was now appropriate with black tie
and depicted cloaks with tuxedos on occasion up until the 1990s.