John F. Kennedy and the last inaugural top hat

The Baltimore Sun

The top hat had been something of an Inauguration Day tradition for U.S. presidents like Franklin D. Roosevelt and Harry Truman. But the custom seemed to come to an end with Dwight Eisenhower, who wore a comparatively casual homburg hat the day he became president.

Less than a week after Election Day 1960, a column in The Baltimore Sun beckoned president-elect Kennedy to bring back the top hat at his inauguration “to make the occasion more memorable for the children.” Hats were a much bigger deal back then.

Kennedy’s tailor agreed, and eventually, so did Kennedy — though he was generally known for his hatlessness. In January 1961, the president's inaugural committee announced Kennedy would wear a top hat, with formal day dress and striped trousers.

The announcement created a stir. Senate Republicans griped that such formal wear was more appropriate for a coronation, not an inauguration. And besides, how could you get in a car with a top hat on? They would wear business suits.

The Baltimore Sun columnist whole-heartedly endorsed the president’s decision, writing, “It is in its ceremonial aspect that the top hat is without peer.”

Some wondered whether the world would see a popular renaissance of the top hat, which had begun dying out around the 1920s. Joseph Charlow, who sold top hats, or toppers, in his West Fayette Street store, thought it signaled a new era.

“Mr. Kennedy is getting us back on the right track,” Charlow told The Sun. “If you’re going to get dressed up, then get dressed up.”

On Inauguration Day, January 20, 1961, the new President wore a black silk top hat, as did many attendees. Though it didn’t stay on: The Sun reported that Kennedy removed it as often as he wore it, sometimes using it to wave to supporters along the frigid Washington parade.

It was a last hurrah for the top hat. Though 20 years later, President Ronald Reagan wore formal dress for his Inauguration Day; he declined the topper.

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