Bowler hat

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Bowler hat, mid-20th century (PFF collection)

The bowler hat, also known as a bob hat, derby (US), 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 and the eastern United States.[2] Later in the United Kingdom, it would come to be worn as civilian work dress by former officers of the Queen's Guard.[3] 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[edit]

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.[4] 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.[5]

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.[6]


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.[7] 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.[7] The identity of the customer is less certain, with many sources suggesting it was William Coke.[3] 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.[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.[8]

Outside the United Kingdom[edit]

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".[9] 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,[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.[10]

In popular culture[edit]

The bowler hat became a trademark of many comic actors and personalities, such as John Cleese, John Steed, Terry-Thomas, Stephen Fry, Dick Charlesworth, Norman Wisdom, Leslie Phillips, Mr Benn, Laurel and Hardy, and Charlie Chaplin, who were all well known for wearing bowler hats.[7]

There was a chain of restaurants in Los Angeles, California known as The Brown Derby. The first and most famous of these was shaped like a derby, an iconic image that became synonymous with the Golden Age of Hollywood.[11] A chain of Brown Derby restaurants in Ohio are still in business today.

Many paintings by the Belgian surrealist artist René Magritte feature bowler hats.The Son of Man consists of a man in a bowler hat standing in front of a wall. The man's face is largely obscured by a hovering green apple. Golconda depicts "raining men" all wearing bowler hats.

The British bank Bradford and Bingley registered more than 100 separate trademarks featuring the bowler hat, its long-running logo.[12] In 1995 the bank purchased, for £2,000, a bowler hat which had once belonged to Stan Laurel.[12]

Choreographer Bob Fosse frequently incorporated bowler hats into his dance routines. This use of hats as a props, as seen in the 1972 film Cabaret would become one of his trademarks.[13]

The Bob Dylan song On the Road Again contains the lyric "The milkman comes in/ He's wearing a derby hat."[14]

Notable Wearers[edit]


  1. ^ Hat Glossary
  2. ^ a b c "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. ^ "History of the Bowler Hat". Daily Telegraph. Retrieved 3 March 2014. 
  5. ^ "Who'll get custody of Bradford and Bingley's bowler hat?". BBC News. Retrieved 25 September 2011. 
  6. ^ "Bowler Hats, Sashes and Banners: the Orange Order in Northern Ireland". Demotix. Retrieved 21 March 2014. 
  7. ^ a b c d "Bowler hat makes a comeback". The Daily Telegraph (London). Retrieved 25 September 2011.
  8. ^ Swinnerton, Jo (2005). The History of Britain Companion. Robson. p. 42. ISBN 1-86105-914-0. 
  9. ^ The Hat That Won the West. Retrieved 2010-02-10. 
  10. ^ Eigo, Tim. "Bolivian Americans". Countries and Their Cultures. Retrieved 2008-08-13. 
  11. ^ Rubay, Donnell. "The Rogue and the Little Lady: The romance of Wilson Mizner and Anita Loos". The Bernica Herald. Retrieved January 1, 2014. 
  12. ^ a b "Who'll get custody of Bradford and Bingley's bowler hat?". BBC News. 30 September 2008. Retrieved 2 October 2008. 
  13. ^ Bob Fosse
  14. ^ Bob Dylan
  15. ^ Rettenmund, Matthew (1996). Totally Awesome 80s: A Lexicon of the Music, Videos, Movies, TV Shows, Stars, and Trends of That Decedent Decade. St. Martin's Griffin. p. 39. ISBN 0-31214-436-9. 
  16. ^ "Charlie Chaplin's bowler hat sold at auction". CBS News (New York). Retrieved 11 June 2016.
  17. ^ "Charlie Morrow". NewMusicBox. Retrieved July 2, 2015. 
  18. ^ "Mr. Bowler Radio". Retrieved July 2, 2015. 
  19. ^ The Hat House
  20. ^ John Steed's Fashion

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]