A Tip of the Hat: Formal Headwear

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  •  Top hats have been the standard headgear with tailcoats since the early Victorian era and were originally made of either silk or beaver fur.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  • Although there are historical references to “tuxedo” hats, the term was applied indiscriminately to homburgs and fedoras.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.


  1. Ned L. Nix, D.D.S.

    Nice, Peter! Since many of us are looking to you for guidance, I like your choice and rationale for the Homburg.

    I have always been a hat wearer. What is difficult is knowing when and where to wear the hat. At many clubs and indoor social gathering places, it is not polite to wear a hat.

    I can see how Toronto would be a great place to wear one frequently outdoors. The thing about the beautiful Homburg is that I would wear it from the car to the event and promptly remove it when indoors.

    I have a yearly trip to Chicago in the Winter and have just added one to Washington, D.C. I have just purchased a sporty black fedora, narrow brimmed, for the trips. Unfortunately, the fashionable fedoras that are available here in CA are mostly narrow brimmed. I would prefer the traditional brim and will continue to look for one.

  2. Alexander T

    What do you think about an opera hat with a more formal interpretation of black tie (full dress waistcoat and shirt, peaked lapel dinner jacket, etc.)? I think a big performance at the local symphony hall would be an excellent occasion for an outfit like that.

    Speaking of opera hats, you mentioned in “Other Accompaniments” of the white tie section that they are still being made. If I could ask, who sells them?

    1. Peter Marshall

      I concur completely with the experts who say that a tall hat is incongruous with a short coat. Top hats should be worn only with tailed coats, whether evening or morning styles.

      If you’re looking for top hats, collapsible or otherwise, you’ll find everything you need to know at http://chwolfenbloode.wordpress.com/2009/05/15/guide-to-buying-a-top-hat/.

  3. Scott H

    I am purchasing a bespoke Midnight Blue tuxedo with Black satin facing. I want to purchase a Homburg to wear in the cold and rain. Should the hat and band match the suit fabric color? Should the hat and band contrast the Midnight Blue and Black? My overcoat is Dark Blue so I am leaning towards a Black hat with a Midnight Blue band.

    1. Peter Marshall (Post author)

      There’s no need to have the hat precisely mirror the tuxedo. Black with midnight-blue band will be just fine.


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