John Etherington, a London haberdasher with a fashionable shop on the Strand, emerged from his store in the twilight hours of January 15, 1797, wearing a new hat of his own design.
The Times newspaper reported that Etherington’s tall black hat drew a crowd so large that a shoving match erupted; one man was pushed through a shop window. Etherington was arrested for disturbing the peace. Within a month, though, he had more orders for top hats than he could fill. British costume historians contend that Etherington’s was the world’s first top hat. Their French counterparts claim that the design originated a year earlier in Paris and that John Etherington pilfered it. The only evidence supporting the Parisian origin, however, is a painting by French artist Charles Vernet, Un Incroyable de 1796, which depicts a dandy in an Etherington-like top hat.
Though artists traditionally have presaged trends, the British believe the painting may be more an example of an artist’s antedating a work.
In the British House of Commons, a rule requiring a Member of Parliament who wished to raise a point of order during a division, having to speak seated with a top hat on, was only abolished in 1998. Spare top hats were kept in the chamber in case they were needed. The Modernisation Select Committee commented that “This particular practice has almost certainly brought the House into greater ridicule than almost any other”