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The Top Hat: A Story of Outsourcing

Submitted by on August 4, 2012 – 10:39 pm 2 Comments

If you think the outsourcing of labor and raw materials is a story that started in this millennium, think again. Yet, who would have thought that the top hat would serve as a 200-year-old illustration of turning to China for raw material?

President Woodrow Wilson was the height of fashion in his silk top hat

President Woodrow Wilson (second from right) was the height of fashion in his silk top hat while reviewing troops in 1913.

In recently reading Debbie HendersonÔÇÖs book ÔÇ£The Top Hat: An Illustrated History,ÔÇØ (The Wild Goose Press, 2000.) it is clear that the top hat is undersung in its rich history. Perhaps the most iconic image of the top hat goes to Fred Astaire who was so associated with the topper that he even starred in a movie named ÔÇ£Top Hat.ÔÇØ His shiny silk top hat was the perfect fit for his persona of debonair elegance.

However, some variation of the top hat was the leader of menÔÇÖs fashion, and sometimes womenÔÇÖs fashion, for nearly 500 years. For the first 350 to 400 years, top hats were made out of fur. Rabbit fur was common, but the most popular fur was beaver fur. Hatters in Europe paid princely sums for beaver pelts from North America. Beaver fur made a much higher grade of felt that wasÔÇöand still isÔÇömore refined and durable. Trappers thrived in the colonies in the 1600s and 1700s. Beavers were abundant.

As demand in Europe and North America skyrocketed and the human population swelled, beavers were hunted to the brink of extinction. By the 1830s the price of beaver fur was astronomical. And then happenstance fatefully intervened:

ÔÇ£Legend has it that a Mr. M. Bota, an avid traveler, went to China early in the 1800s wearing his European fur felt top hat. The hat became so worn while he was in China that Mr. Bota asked a Chinese hat maker to make him a new hat, as similar to the old one as possible. What he received was made of something soft and glossy. Upon returning to England, he startled people with his shiny top hat. But soon, as with many startling things, it became all the rage; silk plush provided a much needed substitute for the now diminishing supply of beaver fur. The majority of top hats manufactured after 1840 were made from this woven silk fabric.ÔÇØ (Henderson, p. 44)

There were no environmentalists back then, and the switch from fur to silk hats is credited by many as saving the beaver population and allowing for it to gradually recover from the brink.

Various styles of silken top hats remained the very pinnacle of menÔÇÖs fashion for the next 100 years until World War II, although they are still worn on some occassions for special ceremonies and events today. Of course, with a twist of irony, with the price of silk being so high, many top hats today are made from fur felt and wool felt.

Getting back to China, with a satirical eye on our modern headlines, how are we to interpret its impact on American life nearly 200 years ago. China Saves American Beaver Population! Or. Chinese Put American Trappers Out of Work! Or. Hat Production Moves to China!

It is difficult to say, but clearly this story has what those in the news biz would call legs.

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2 Comments »

  • Tim McMullen says:

    I found this old top hat and the label inside is New York Hat Co. I was just wondering if it was worth anything.

    • Nathaniel Cerf says:

      Hi Tim,

      The New York Hat Co. is still in existence, and we carry their new hats at Hats Plus. Vintage hats can be a tough sell. Check eBay to see what they are getting. The trick for most people is finding a buyer who needs that particular model, color and size. Odds are that most people aren’t willing to spend much on a “used” hat, but that doesn’t mean you haven’t got a hot vintage commodity. Best of luck with it.

      –Nathaniel

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