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 and the eastern United States. Later in the United Kingdom, it would come to be worn as civilian work dress by former officers of the Queen's Guard. In Bolivia, women of Quechua people have worn bowler hats since the 1920s when British railway workers introduced them there.
Cultural significance in the United Kingdom and Ireland
From the early 20th century bowler hats were commonly associated with businessmen working in the financial districts, also known as "City Gents". The traditional wearing of bowler hats with City 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. For this reason, two bowler-hatted men were used in the logo of the British building society (subsequently bank), Bradford & Bingley.
In Scotland and Northern Ireland the bowler hat is traditionally worn by members of the main Loyalist fraternities such as the Orange Order, the Independent Loyal Orange Institution, the Royal Black Preceptory and the Apprentice Boys of Derry for their parades and annual celebrations.
The bowler hat is said to have been designed 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 at Holkham Hall in Norfolk. 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. The identity of the customer is less certain, with many sources suggesting it was William Coke. However research carried out by a nephew of the 1st Earl of Leicester cast some doubt on this story, and it is now believed that the bowler was invented by Edward Coke, the younger brother of the 2nd Earl of Leicester. 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.
Outside the United Kingdom
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 while riding a horse, 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. 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.
Another region where the bowler hat is worn 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.
In popular culture
The bowler hat became a trademark of many comic actors and personalities, such as Charlie Chaplin, John Cleese, John Steed, Terry-Thomas, Stephen Fry, Dick Charlesworth, Norman Wisdom, Stan Laurel, and Oliver Hardy, who were all well known for wearing bowler hats. Avant-garde composer, commercial jingle writer and soundscape designer Charlie Morrow, who almost always wears a bowler, sometimes calls himself Mr. Bowler and even has an internet radio site called Mr. Bowler Radio, In the 1964 movie Goldfinger, Auric Goldfinger's manservant Oddjob uses his razor-edged bowler hat as a weapon. Thom Yorke of Radiohead wears a bowler hat in the music video for the song "Lotus Flower."
- 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.
- "History of the Bowler Hat". Daily Telegraph. Retrieved 3 March 2014.
- "Who'll get custody of Bradford and Bingley's bowler hat?". BBC News. Retrieved 25 September 2011.
- "Bowler Hats, Sashes and Banners: the Orange Order in Northern Ireland". Demotix. Retrieved 21 March 2014.
- "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.
- "Charlie Morrow". NewMusicBox. Retrieved July 2, 2015.
- "Mr. Bowler Radio". Retrieved July 2, 2015.
- "Radiohead - Lotus Flower". YouTube.
- 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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