02/08/2018

Why we wear what we do: a brief history of the Top Hat and Tails

Funeral Clothing C19 Plumage 481X230

If you were to ask anyone to name three things they associate with a Funeral Director, it is a pretty safe bet they would reply; ‘top hat & tails’, most likely followed by coffins. Previously on our blog we have explored the funerals of ancient civilisations and how they may have influenced our traditions but today, we are exploring why Funeral Directors wear what we do and where the top hat and tails that is so synonymous with our profession, came from.

Whilst we cannot be sure when and by whom the top hat was created, we do know that it became increasingly popular across Britain and America in the late 1700’s, in unison with the prevalence of the wearing of a tailcoat.

This ‘uniform’ as such became for some time the every day dress for many members of society and by the mid to late 19th Century, the tailcoat had become a formal fashion choice, with men choosing to wear them solely at high profile evening events.

The top hat however continued to be worn daily. So how did this now formal attire become the choice for Funeral Directors almost worldwide? Modern Funeral Directing evolved from the skilled coffin makers and tradesmen working in London in the mid 19th Century and as this coincided with the changing attitudes toward the tailcoat, it was natural fit that this uniform would be adopted for what could be described as one of the most formal occasions a person may ever attend. In addition to its formality, black has long been associated with the colour of mourning. but In victorian London for example, it is said that the widows of deceased men would often wear black garments for years after the passing of their spouse, as a social signifier of their loss.

Funerals in the Victorian era were more akin to the grand funeral processions of ancient Greece than to the way we travel to funerals today, with the Funeral Director taking on a more conductor like role, marching plume decorated horse and carriages through the streets while mutes (professional mourners) followed carrying wand like batons. The Funeral Directors clothing was just as elegant and luxurious, possibly influenced by high profile funerals such as those of monarchs and prime-ministers. Typically the Funeral Directors would wear expensive wing tipped shirts, high quality waistcoats and heavy duty jackets.

In the early 20th century the grandiose nature of funeral procession was stripped back alongside the advent of the automobile. Horses and carriages were no longer in use, and with war waging and a struggling economy the roles of mutes and other funeral professional became increasingly underused. Funerals were now more cost effective and it was not uncommon that only a driver and Funeral Director would be in attendance on the day. The dress was also compromised, the top hat and tails was still a necessity but Funeral Directors would opt for less expensive items. This new more subtle style is still in use today, with more simple lighter jackets, and pinstripe suits.

As attitudes towards end of life and funerals has evolved, so too have attitudes toward what colours people are willing to wear and have worn at funerals. Our research has shown that 42% of people want their funeral to be more of a “celebratory affair” than something sombre, it is thinking like this that has meant our funeral directing team has on occasion been asked to wear non-traditional and more personal items. These requests range from subtle things such as a change of tie colour, or wearing a pin badge to the more committed where we have seen Funeral Directors sport military uniform or dress as superheroes.

The top hat and tails will for the foreseeable future be the fashion choice for Funeral Directors but we understand that every life is unique and always strive to add that additional personal touch to all funerals we conduct be that through choice of clothing or other elements.. For more ideas about funeral personalisation and to learn more about our profession please visit; www.cpjfield.co.uk/news