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On A Top-hat Post by :sanjib Category :Essays Author :A. G. Gardiner Date :October 2011 Read :2300

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On A Top-hat

A few days ago I went to a christening to make vows on behalf of the offspring of a gallant young officer now at the front. I conceived that the fitting thing on such an occasion was to wear a silk hat, and accordingly I took out the article, warmed it before the fire, and rubbed it with a hat pad until it was nice and shiny, put it on my head, and set out for the church. But I soon regretted the choice. It had no support from any one else present, and when later I got out of the Tube and walked down the Strand I found that I was a conspicuous person, which, above all things, I hate to be. My hat, I saw, was observed. Eyes were turned towards me with that mild curiosity with which one remarks any innocent oddity or vanity of the streets.

I became self-conscious and looked around for companionship, but as my eye travelled along the crowded pavement I could see nothing but bowlers and trilbys and occasional straws. "Ah, here at last," said I, "is one coming." But a nearer view only completed my discomfiture, for it was one of those greasy-shiny hats which go with frayed trousers and broken boots, and which are the symbol of "better days," of hopes that are dead, and "drinks" that dally, of a social status that has gone and of a suburban villa that has shrunk to a cubicle in a Rowton lodging-house. I looked at greasy-hat and greasy-hat looked at me, and in that momentary glance of fellowship we agreed that we were "out of it."

I put my silk hat away at night with the firm resolution that nothing short of an invitation to Buckingham Palace, or some similar incredible disaster, should make me drag it into the light again. For the truth is that the war has given the top-hat a knock-out blow. It had been tottering on our brows for some time. There was a very hot summer a few years ago which began the revolution. The tyranny of the top-hat became intolerable, and quite "respectable" people began to be seen in the streets with Panamas and straws. But these were only concessions to an irresponsible climate, and the silk hat still held its ancient sway as the crown and glory of our City civilisation. And now it has toppled down and is on the way, perhaps, to becoming as much a thing of the past as wigs or knee-breeches. It is almost as rare in the Strand as it is in Market Street, Manchester. Cabinet Ministers and other sublime personages still wear it, coachmen still wear it, and my friend greasy-hat still wears it; but for the rest of us it is a splendour that is past, a memory of the world before the deluge.

It may be that it will revive. It would not be the first time that such a result of a great catastrophe was found to be only temporary. I remember that Pepys records in his Diary that one result of the Great Plague was that the wig went out of fashion. People were afraid to wear wigs that might be made of the hair of those who had died of infection. But the wig returned again for more than a century, though you may remember that in The Rivals there is an early hint of its final disappearance. There was never probably a more crazy fashion, and, like most crazy fashions, it began, as the "Alexandra limp" of our youth began, in snobbery. Was it not a fact that a bald-headed King wore a wig to conceal his baldness, which set all the flunkey-world wearing wigs to conceal their hair? This aping of the great is always converting some defect or folly into a virtue. When Lady Percy in Henry IV. is lamenting Hotspur she says:--

... he was, indeed, the glass
Wherein the noble youth did dress themselves.
He had no legs that practised not his gait;
And speaking thick, which nature made his blemish,
Became the accents of the valiant;
For those that could speak low and tardily,
Would turn their own perfection to abuse.
To seem like him.

In the case of the top-hat the disappearance is due to the psychology of the war. The great tragedy has brought us down to the bed-rock of things and has made us feel somehow that ornament is out of place, and that the top-hat is a falsity in a world that has become a battlefield. I don't think women have shared this feeling to the same extent. I am told there were never so many sealskin coats to be seen as during last winter. But, perhaps, the women will say that men have been only too glad to use the war as an excuse for getting rid of an incubus. And they may be right. We had better not make too great a virtue of what is, after all, a comfortable change. Let us enjoy it without boasting.

Our enjoyment may be short-lived. We must not be surprised if this incredible hat returns in triumph with peace. It has survived the blasts of many centuries and infinite changes of fashion. It is, I suppose, the most ancient survival in the dress that men wear. There is in the Froissart collection at the British Museum an illumination (dating from the fifteenth century) showing the expedition of the French and English against the Barbary corsairs. And there seated in the boats are men clad in armour. They have put their helmets aside and are wearing top-hats! And it may be that when Macaulay's New Zealander, centuries hence, takes his seat on that broken arch of London Bridge to sketch the ruins of St. Paul's, he will sit under the shelter of a top-hat that has out-lasted all our greatness.

There must be some virtue in a thing that is so immortal. If the doctrine of the survival of the fittest applies to dress, it is the fittest thing we have. Trousers are a thing of yesterday with us, but our top-hat carries us back to the Wars of the Roses and beyond. It is not its beauty that explains it. I have never heard any one deny that it is ugly, though custom may have blunted our sense of its ugliness. It is not its utility. I have never heard any one claim that this strange cylinder had that quality. It is not its comfort It is stiff, it is heavy, it is unmanageable in a wind and ruined by a shower of rain. It needs as much attention as a peevish child or a pet dog. It is not even cheap, and when it is disreputable it is the most disreputable thing on earth. What is the mystery of its strange persistence? Is it simply a habit that we cannot throw off or is there a certain snobbishness about it that appeals to the flunkeyism of men? That is perhaps the explanation. That is perhaps why it has disappeared when snobbishness is felt to be inconsistent with the world of stern realities and bitter sorrows in which we live. We are humble and serious and out of humour with the pretentious vanity of our top-hat.

(The end)
A. G. Gardiner's essay: On A Top-Hat

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