Bowler hat

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Roger Moore (Bowler hatted city gent)

The bowler hat, also known as a bob hat, derby (US), billycock or bombín,[1] is a hard felt hat with a rounded crown originally created in 1849 for the British soldier and politician Edward Coke, the younger brother of the 2nd Earl of Leicester. The bowler hat was popular with the working class during the Victorian era, and later on with the middle and upper classes in the United Kingdom.[2] Later in the United Kingdom, it would come to be worn as work dress by the officers of the Queen's Guard.[3] In Bolivia the women of Quechua people have used bowler hats since the 1920s when British railway workers introduced them there.

Bowler hats were also very common in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s with businessmen working in the financial districts, also known as "City Gents". Bowler hats being associated with the business attire died out in the 1980s. In modern times Bowlers are not common, although the City Gents remain in certain parts of England keeping the tradition alive. The City Gent is arguably the most iconic stereotyped view of an Englishman complete with Bowler and rolled umbrella.


The bowler once defined British civil servants and bankers, and later American workingmen.[4] It was devised in 1849 by the London hat-makers Thomas and William Bowler to fulfill an order placed by the firm of hatters Lock & Co. of St James's.[4] Lock & Co. had been commissioned by a customer to design a close-fitting, low-crowned hat to protect Coke's gamekeepers' heads from low-hanging branches while on horseback. The keepers had previously worn top hats, which were easily knocked off and damaged. Lock & Co. then commissioned the Bowler brothers to solve the problem.[4]

Especially in Great Britain, most accounts agreed that the customer (and designer of the hat) was William Coke.[3] However, later, a nephew of the 1st Earl of Leicester, provided research that has cast some doubt on this origin story. It is now believed that it was Edward Coke, the younger brother of the 2nd Earl of Leicester, who invented the hat design.[2]

When Coke arrived in London on 17 December 1849 to collect his hat he reportedly placed it on the floor and stamped hard on it twice to test its strength; the hat withstood this test and Coke paid 12 shillings for it.[5] In accordance with Lock & Company's usual practice, the hat was called the "Coke" hat (pronounced "cook") after the customer who had ordered it. This is most likely why the hat became known as the "Billy Coke" or "Billycock" hat in Norfolk.


The bowler hat is a traditional part of womenswear among the Quechua and Aymara peoples of South America

The bowler, not the cowboy hat or sombrero, was the most popular hat in the American West, prompting Lucius Beebe to call it "the hat that won the West".[6] Both cowboys and railroad workers preferred the hat because it would not blow off easily in strong wind, or when sticking one's head out the window of a speeding train. It was worn by both lawmen and outlaws, including Bat Masterson, Butch Cassidy, Black Bart, and Billy the Kid. It is in America the hat came to be commonly known as the derby,[3] and Wild West outlaw Marion Hedgepeth was commonly referred to as "the Derby Kid".

The bowler, called a bombín in Spanish, has been worn by Quechua and Aymara women since the 1920s, when it was introduced to Bolivia by British railway workers. For many years, a factory in Italy manufactured the hats for the Bolivian market, but they are now made locally.[7] During the Second World War a gentlemen's outfitters on the German occupied island of Jersey gave away its entire supply of bowlers to slave workers, mostly refugees from Spain and Morocco, plus Polish and Russian prisoners of war and forced by the occupiers to build an underground hospital at St Lawrence.[8] They gladly accepted these as the only form of head protection available to them.

Another region that appreciates the bowler hat is the Niger Delta area of Nigeria. The men of this region use this hat as a fashion accessory, along with a walking stick. These fashion accessories, which have become a staple part of the regional costume, were introduced by British colonials in the 1900s. Also in Scotland and Northern Ireland the main Loyalist fraternities, the Independent Loyal Orange Institution, the Royal Black Preceptory and the Apprentice Boys hold parades where many members wear bowlers during various annual celebrations.[9]

In popular culture[edit]

City Gent on a scooter
The popular John Cleese
The original Wilshire Boulevard Brown Derby Restaurant
Aamir Khan with bowler hat

In artworks[edit]

In business[edit]

  • In the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, bowler hats were the badge of office workers in the financial district of the City of London. For this reason, two bowler-hatted men were used in the logo of the British building society (subsequently bank), Bradford & Bingley.[10] The custom died out in the 1970s.[11]
  • A bowler-hatted city gent is the trademark image for Broker's Gin.
  • From 1977 to the early 2000s, Chuck E. Cheese's rodent mascot wore a red derby hat with a yellow hatband. All versions of character wore the hat whenever he appeared in advertising and the media, and in the restaurants as an animatronic or costumed character. Workers at the restaurants also wore matching hats as part of their uniform.

In song[edit]

  • Madness relate to a Bowler Hat in their song "Cardiac arrest" (Graham McPherson often wore a Bowler in music videos)
  • Bob Dylan used the term "derby hat" as a reference to the bowler hat in his song "On the Road Again" from his album Bringing It All Back Home.
  • During some points of Led Zeppelin's 1975 concert tour, drummer John Bonham wore the costume of the A Clockwork Orange droogs, featuring a white jumpsuit and a black bowler hat.
  • The song that opens the 1950s TV show Bat Masterson has lyrics "he wore a cane and Derby hat, they called him Bat, Bat Masterson".
  • The 2011 music video for Radiohead's song "Lotus Flower" features lead singer, Thom Yorke, dancing in a bowler hat.[12]

In film and television[edit]

In literature[edit]


  1. ^ Hat Glossary
  2. ^ a b "The history of the Bowler hat at Holkham" (PDF). Coke Estates Ltd. 
  3. ^ a b c Roetzel, Bernhard (1999). Gentleman's Guide to Grooming and Style. Barnes & Noble.
  4. ^ a b c d e "Bowler hat makes a comeback". The Daily Telegraph (London). Retrieved 25 September 2011.
  5. ^ Swinnerton, Jo (2005). The History of Britain Companion. Robson. p. 42. ISBN 1-86105-914-0. 
  6. ^ The Hat That Won the West. Retrieved 2010-02-10. 
  7. ^ Eigo, Tim. "Bolivian Americans". Countries and Their Cultures. Retrieved 2008-08-13. 
  8. ^ "German Underground Hospital". JerseyWeb. Retrieved 21 March 2014. 
  9. ^ "Bowler Hats, Sashes and Banners: the Orange Order in Northern Ireland". Demotix. Retrieved 21 March 2014. 
  10. ^ "Who'll get custody of Bradford and Bingley's bowler hat?". BBC News. Retrieved 25 September 2011. 
  11. ^ "History of the Bowler Hat". Daily Telegraph. Retrieved 3 March 2014. 
  12. ^ Radiohead. "Lotus Flower". Retrieved 10 December 2012. 
  13. ^
  14. ^ Thomson and Thompson

Further reading[edit]

  • Fred Miller Robinson, The Man in the Bowler Hat: His History and Iconography (Chapel Hill and London: The University of North Carolina Press, 1993).
  • "Whatever Became of the Derby Hat?" Lucius Beebe, Gourmet, May 1966.

External links[edit]