In this series, we highlight pieces of formalwear involved in significant historical moments or tied (sometimes literally) to cultural icons.
The last U.S. president to wear a top hat to his inauguration took the oath of office on January 20, 1961—the day the top hat died. You history nerds (and those of us with access to Google) know that president was John F. Kennedy. It’s hard to imagine a style icon like Jack wearing such a traditional accessory, but we have the proof.
And somehow, he looks just as cool as he did on duty in the South Pacific, or at ease on his sailboat wearing Wayfarers. But these photos don’t tell the whole story. Up to this point, presidents had always kept their top hat on for the entire inauguration day, more or less. After briefly tipping his hat to tradition (we had to), Kennedy “went topless.”
Who cares, right? The top hat wasn’t exactly trending in 1961. But with the drop of a hat (we can’t stop), JFK used his influence to quietly put an official end to a look that had unofficially ended in the 1920’s. When Lyndon Johnson took the oath four years later—you guessed it—no top hat.
We can’t feel too bad for the top hat though—it had a pretty good run. Two hundred years is “pretty good,” right?
These days we only see the top hat when we stream a Civil War documentary or suffer through a bad magician’s act. And maybe that’s okay. Maybe what was once a formalwear staple had limped along for long enough. Kennedy wasn’t disrespecting the top hat in January, 1961—he was giving it one final dignified day in the sun.
Now, please enjoy what might be the first presidential selfie in history: