Thursday, August 19, 2010

The history of bowler hats

Sitting here tonight I said, What did we do today that I should write about?"  "How about the history of bowler hats," says Spark who was hanging upside down over the side of the couch.  Okay, I will.  He is now laughing like a crazy fiend that I would actually write about that so lets see what I can find.

The Bowler Hat, or Derby, as it is known in the U.S. was first created at 6 St James’s Street, London,in  1850 by St. James Street hatters George and James Lock. The hat was created initially as a hard hat, custom made for an aristocrat-cum-game warden by the name of William Coke II (who was later to become the Earl of Leicester) , to give his game wardens to wear when patrolling their employer’s estate on horseback.  He wanted a hat that was close-fitting and low-crowned to protect his gamekeepers' heads from low-hanging branches. The keepers had previously worn top hats, which were easily knocked off and damaged. It was also hoped that the new style of hat would protect the keepers if they were attacked by poachers. 

 The story goes that when Coke was first presented with the hat at the Locks’ premises, he threw it to the floor and stamped on it to test its hardiness, before ramming it down on his head and leaving the shop, evidently satisfied. It had cost him 12 shillings and he returned home carrying what would become the most important hat in modern history.

The Locks referred to their design as a Coke hat, after the client for whom it was designed, but it was the manufacturers whose name became associated with it ever since.  The actual manufacture of the first prototype 'bowler hat' was handled by another London-based hatter named William Bowler. Due to the fact the hat was also bowl shaped, and manufactured by the William Bowler, the term 'bowler hat' soon replaced 'coke hat'.

Because the bowler hat was initially created to be used as a hard hat for horse-riding people such as William Coke II, its use soon came to be standard for such horse riding events as the derby. One hatter from the United States duly noted the fact the hat was been used among those taking part in Derby's, therefore the term Derby hat took hold in the United States before the original - and still the traditional term in the United Kingdom - bowler hat term could.

Prior to the advent of the bowler, hats were easily readable markers of social distinction. Members of the gentry wore top hats, while the working man traditionally wore a flat cap. The bowler hat changed all that. Precisely because it had been designed as a working hat, it became the adopted business uniform of a whole number of different trades. The image of the city gent going to work at the bank, with rolled umbrella, carnation buttonhole and bowler, is a familiar one to us still, but what has been lost to collective memory is the extent of bowler-wearing among the working classes.  Throughout most of England it was associated with professional servants, "e.g." butlers, and so upon seeing a man wearing a bowler in a pub or on the street, it was fairly safe to assume he was a "gentleman's gentleman," meaning a valet, manservant or butler; in London itself, however, it was associated with professionals, and so a man wearing a bowler in the city could safely be assumed to be a lawyer, stockbroker, banker or government official.  Street-traders, omnibus drivers, wet fish sellers, shipyard workers, knife-grinders, and others all sported them as uniform and protective headgear.

Englishmen stopped wearing hats as a matter of course in the 1960s, and most young English people in the 21st century have never seen a bowler hat worn as part of normal dress. It is, however, still commonly seen worn at some formal public events, such as by town councillors at Armistice Day ceremonies. It is also traditionally worn by members of the Orange Order in Northern Ireland during their 12 July annual parades.

Outside England, the only culture in the world that still prizes the bowler hat as an essential item of everyday wear are the Aymara women of the Bolivian and Peruvian highlands where is is called a bombin.  The Aymara women believe the hats enhance fertility.

A small bowler hat worn at an angle is typically referred to as a "gruff hat" or "pickle hat".

In Germany, the hat is known as Melone (melon), due to its shape. In France it is known as "chapeau melon".

Famous people who have worn bowler hats:

  • Spooky the Tuff Little Ghost, a fixture in comic books
  • Aviation pioneers, Americans Orville & Wilbur Wright, and pioneering French aviators Alberto Santos-Dumont and Louis Blériot
  • Charlie Chaplin
  • Lou Costello wore one occasionally in films, but was always seen in a too-small derby on television’s “The Abbott and Costello Show”.
  • Malcolm McDowell‘s character Alex wears a bowler hat in “A Clockwork Orange”
  • “Superman” villain Mr. Mxyzptlk
  • John Cleese in the infamous Ministry of Silly Walks
  • Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy
  • Dominic Monaghan, actor of “Lord of the Rings” and “Lost”
  • Winston Churchill
  • “Batman” villain The Riddler
  • Mr. Potato Head
  • The Three Stooges
  • John Bonham
So there you have it, more than you probably ever wanted, or will ever need, to know about the bowler hat.  However, if your curiosity has been peaked and you just need to know more about this hat check out the book, The Man in the Bowler Hat: His History and Iconography, by Fred Miller Robinson.

2 comments:

Moderate Means said...

What a great way to find a post idea :)

jugglingpaynes said...

I have known a great many people who wear bowler hats. I have one myself. Jugglers use them for hat manipulation tricks. ;o)

Peace and Laughter,
Cristina