In our day, the silk top hat is associated almost exclusively with cartoonish caricatures of hackneyed old magicians and robber baron Monopoly men, but through the late 18th to mid 20th centuries, the top hat was common headwear for pretty much all well-heeled gentlemen. Fashion trends come and go, but this one lasted for at least a century and a half.
So how did this once-prominent adornment become so…well, old-hat?
Page through the annals of American folklore and you’ll eventually come to the mostly-uncharted intersection of politics and retail. There you’ll find the oft-repeated claim that President John F. Kennedy is responsible for the demise of the top hat, and men’s hats in general. According to many sources, Kennedy broke with longstanding tradition by not wearing a top hat to his inauguration. Allegedly, you could almost hear the sighs of relief across the nation as men from coast to coast were freed from ever having to wear silly hats to formal events ever again.
The only trouble is that it isn’t true. Not only did Kennedy wear a silk top hat to his inauguration, he did so in spite of recent history. It was actually Kennedy’s predecessor, Dwight D. Eisenhower, who was the first to be inaugurated with a bare head. In point of fact, Kennedy restored the top hat tradition, though only briefly. JFK wore a top hat throughout the inauguration, except for the actual swearing in and inaugural address.
Though John Kennedy wore a top hat to his inauguration, he was the last President to do so. And the only time you are likely to see one today is on a movie set, a wedding, costume party, or in the board game Monopoly.
So Kennedy did not kill the top hat but that raises the question: where did this myth come from? Why do so many still believe that John F. Kennedy put the last nail in the coffin of the men wearing hats as a matter of course?
Well, it could be that, in spite of having worn one at his inauguration, Kennedy was well-known for disliking all hats. But we also cannot discount coincidence. The top hat was already in sharp decline long before Kennedy took the oath, and he was the last President to wear one. Lots of people have simply mistaken happenstance for cause and effect.
As an aside, there is no way of knowing for sure what causes a fashion to rise or decline, but there is at least one pretty good theory regarding the demise of the top hat. Some social historians believe it was the automobile that killed the top hat and, later, men’s hats in general.
In the days when most men took buses or streetcars to work, there was plenty of headroom inside public transport carriages, and thus no need to remove one’s hat. When automobiles became the most common way of getting around, suddenly transportation was not so hat-friendly, as anyone can discover by attempting to get into and out of a car while wearing a tall hat.
Whatever the reason for the demise of the top hat, I can assure you that it had nothing to do with the ascent of any President. Though it may be amusing to think that one man de-hatted an entire nation in one day, the truth, as always, is far more complex.