The bowler hat, also known as a bob hat, derby (US), billycock or bombín, 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. Later in the United Kingdom, it would come to be worn as work dress by the officers of the Queen's Guard. In Bolivia the women of Quechua people have used bowler hats since the 1920s when British railway workers introduced them there.
The bowler once defined British civil servants and bankers, and later American workingmen. 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. 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.
Especially in Great Britain, most accounts agreed that the customer (and designer of the hat) was William Coke. 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.
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. 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, 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". 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, 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. 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. 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.
In popular culture
- In the 1950s and 1960s, 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. The custom died out in the 1970s.
- 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.
In film and television
- In the 2002 television series, Firefly, smuggling middleman Badger wears a bowler hat.
- Comedic actors Curly Howard, Shemp Howard, Roscoe Arbuckle, Charlie Chaplin, Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy were well known for their bowler hats.
- In the 1960s UK television series The Avengers, Patrick MacNee playing John Steed is seldom seen without his bowler and umbrella.
- In the 1960 film The Apartment, Jack Lemmon playing C.C. Baxter dons a bowler hat.
- In the 1964 movie Goldfinger, Auric Goldfinger's manservant Oddjob uses a razor-edged bowler hat as a weapon.
- In the 1964 Disney film, Mary Poppins, London banker George Banks (played by David Tomlinson) wears a bowler.
- In the story Missouri Mish Mash of the 1960s animated series The Bullwinkle Show a derby hat called the Kirward Derby (a pun on the name of then-popular television personality Durward Kirby) makes its wearer the smartest being in the world.
- In the 1969 movie Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Paul Newman and Robert Redford wore bowler hats on their visit to Bolivia
- In the 1971 movie A Clockwork Orange, Alex DeLarge and his droogs were well known for their bowler hats.
- In the 1974 episode of Are You Being Served? titled "The Think Tank", the fictional department store's elaborate class hierarchy, which determines who among the staff are permitted to wear a bowler hat, figures prominently in the plot.
- In the 1990 movie Back to the Future Part III, Michael J. Fox's Character Marty Mcfly was given a bowler hat to wear by his great great grandfather Seamus Mcfly (also played by Michael J. Fox) who stated "Some respectable clothes and a fine hat".
- In the 1999 movie Thomas Crown Affair, the painting "The Son of Man" is a prominent motif, where a man is wearing an overcoat and a bowler, with his face covered by a green apple. The protagonist has many accomplices that dressed in a bowler hat and an overcoat in the museum.
- In the 2007 Disney animated feature Meet the Robinsons, the main human antagonist wears a bowler hat and is referred to only as the "Bowler Hat Guy" for the majority of the film. Furthermore, the intelligent robotic invention that devises most of the Bowler Hat Guy's diabolical plans is shaped like a bowler hat.
- In the 2011 movie Captain America: The First Avenger, Neal McDonough's character Timothy "Dum Dum" Dugan is always wearing his bowler hat.
- In the 2012 BBC television series Ripper Street, Matthew MacFadyen's character DI Edmund Reid wears a bowler when out of doors.
- In Erich Kästner's children's novel Emil and the Detectives the villain is a mysterious "Man in the Bowler Hat".
- In the 1984 novel The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera, the bowler is a vital plot device.
- In the Harry Potter series, Minister of Magic Cornelius Fudge was known to wear a lime green bowler hat, and Alastor "Mad-Eye" Moody sometimes hid his magical eye with a bowler hat.
- Various comic book characters wear bowler hats, including Batman villain the Riddler, Timothy "Dum Dum" Dugan from Sgt. Fury and His Howling Commandos, Meg from Far West, and the Thompson twins from Hergé's Adventures of Tintin.
- In Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot, several characters wear bowler hats. When asked about the meaning and symbolism of various elements of the play, Beckett responded that he was only sure of one thing - that when he conceived the characters, they should be wearing bowler hats.
- Hat Glossary
- "The history of the Bowler hat at Holkham" (PDF). Coke Estates Ltd.
- Roetzel, Bernhard (1999). Gentleman's Guide to Grooming and Style. Barnes & Noble.
- "Bowler hat makes a comeback". The Daily Telegraph (London). Retrieved 25 September 2011.
- Swinnerton, Jo (2005). The History of Britain Companion. Robson. p. 42. ISBN 1-86105-914-0.
- The Hat That Won the West. Retrieved 2010-02-10.
- Eigo, Tim. "Bolivian Americans". Countries and Their Cultures. Retrieved 2008-08-13.
- "German Underground Hospital". JerseyWeb. Retrieved 21 March 2014.
- "Bowler Hats, Sashes and Banners: the Orange Order in Northern Ireland". Demotix. Retrieved 21 March 2014.
- "Who'll get custody of Bradford and Bingley's bowler hat?". BBC News. Retrieved 25 September 2011.
- "History of the Bowler Hat". Daily Telegraph. Retrieved 3 March 2014.
- Radiohead. "Lotus Flower". Retrieved 10 December 2012.
- Thomson and Thompson
- 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.
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