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I read on https://notesfromtheuk.com/2019/07/05/hats-and-the-house-of-commons/:

Anyone who wanted to raise a point of order during a division (which in the normal world would be called a vote) had to wear a top hat while they were talking. According to some sources, that was because it made them easier for the Speaker to spot. According to others, it was just because. Traditions are like that sometimes. It’s easy to lose track of why they were once done but that doesn’t stop anyone from doing them.

What's the actual reason why someone who wanted to raise a point of order during a division had to wear a top hat while they were talking?

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    I think the question contains the answer. 650 middle aged white guys in nearly identical suits (for most of the history of the House of Commons) are hard to tell apart from each other.
    – ohwilleke
    Jan 18, 2023 at 21:27
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    @ohwilleke they give two possible answers so I'm trying to see which one is correct. Or maybe it's another answer. Jan 18, 2023 at 21:29
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    The "makes them easier to spot" answer definitely sounds like a "just-so story"; I'd be skeptical.
    – alphabet
    Jan 19, 2023 at 0:26
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    @ohwilleke - Sure, but we are talking about people who knew each other because they worked together every day, and who (in many cases) had already known each other for years because they moved in the same circles.
    – Obie 2.0
    Jan 19, 2023 at 1:03

2 Answers 2

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Some Traditions and Customs of the House from the House of Commons Information Office.

To increase their appearance during debates and to be seen more easily, a Member wishing to raise a point of order during a division was, until 1998, required to speak with his hat on. Collapsible top hats were kept for the purpose. This requirement was abolished following recommendations from the Modernisation Select Committee, which stated:

“At present, if a Member seeks to raise a point of order during a division, he or she must speak "seated and covered". In practice this means that an opera hat which is kept at each end of the Chamber has to be produced and passed to the Member concerned. This inevitably takes some time, during which the Member frequently seeks to use some other form of covering such as an Order Paper. This particular practice has almost certainly brought the House into greater ridicule than almost any other, particularly since the advent of television. We do not believe that it can be allowed to continue.”

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  • Thanks, great find! Covered to be more visible, and seated to be less visible. Jan 19, 2023 at 1:54
  • Are there any videos of this? It sounds hilarious!
    – Rich
    Jan 19, 2023 at 10:34
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    Found this: youtu.be/eH0wvkZmGKQ?t=1037 :)
    – Rich
    Jan 19, 2023 at 10:36
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    It might be helpful to put this in the context of the (former) rules for hat-wearing in the Commons, which are summarised on p8 of the linked document, and can be summarised further as: hat on when seated, and off when standing (and if you're addressing the house, you normally have to stand) - the complication being that raising a point of order could only be done when seated, hence the big hat! Jan 19, 2023 at 10:58
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    Keep in mind this likely dates back to a period in history when ALL men (and it was pretty much all men back then) in civilized society were expected to wear hats in public. Whether this has something to do with the common practice of throwing trash out of upper floor windows in the cities is up for debate... Jan 19, 2023 at 16:46
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When the practice was eventually discontinued after the report by the Modernisation Select Committee in 1998 mentioned in Rick Smith's answer, there was resistance to the change because the opera hat distinguished the member wishing to make a point of order amidst the bustle of a division. See Hansard:

Mrs. Taylor: We recommend a new procedure for raising points of order during a Division. At present, we have the opera hat, and, although some Members may feel that they look particularly fetching in it, it makes the House of Commons look ridiculous when someone wearing the hat is trying to raise a point of order from a seated position while everyone else is milling around and going to vote.

Mr. Desmond Swayne: The point is that everyone is milling around. If we must get rid of the opera hat, there must be some means by which a Member can indicate in the melee that he or she wishes to make a point of order.

Mrs. Taylor: We dealt with that point in the report by suggesting that Members, having indicated to the Clerk or the Chair that they wish to make a point of order, should be able to do so. We suggest that a Member should do so from a position on the second Bench, as close as possible to the Chair and the Clerks' Table so that he or she can be heard by the Chair and by the Official Report without obstructing the movement of Members to the Lobby. I understand that the hon. Gentleman wants to be sure that Members will still be able, in rare circumstances, to make points of order, but we have offered an alternative that might be used.

Mr. Bennett: I accept that it is difficult to make a point of order during a Division. When we put the hat on, most of the rest of the House is amused by our appearance. However, although having a special place to stand is perfectly all right for the person making the point of order, it often happens that once a Member has made a point claiming that something is absolutely outrageous, another Member wants to rebut it quickly. If one is standing in the far corner, it will not be easy, after hearing a point of order, to rush to the second Bench to make a point.

Mrs. Taylor: It is not for other Members to rebut points of order, but for the Speaker.

While this excerpt suggests that when the practice was discontinued, the hat was helpful for indicating that the MP wished to make a point of order, it seems unlikely that this was the original reason; as when the practice was instituted it would have been the norm for all members to wear hats while seated in the chamber. I believe the practice originated from the idea that during a division, the House is not in the process of a debate as such, and so the usual courtesy (which evolved into a requirement) of standing and removing one's hat to speak was not strictly necessary. See, for example, the ninth edition of Erskine May, available on archive.org:

In both houses, proper respect is paid to the assembly, by every member who speaks rising in his place, and standing uncovered. The only exception to the rule is in cases of sickness or infirmity, when the indulgence of a seat is frequently allowed, at the suggestion of a member, and with the general acquiescence of the house. In both houses, also, during a division, with closed doors, it is the practice for members to speak sitting and covered; but this practice is confined to questions of order, arising out of the division, and does not apply to distinct motions proposed for the adoption of the house.

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