Archive for November, 2010

The Bowler Comes Back
November 22, 2010

The bowler began as an English hat style, originating back 160 years ago.  Its popularity spread across continents and class till it could be said that it was infused into the subconscious of Western culture.  The bowler broke the mold of what hats were prior to its entrance.  It is no surprise that, as hats are coming back into prominence, it is also enjoying renewed popularity.

Designed by Lock’s of St. James Street in 1850 for Sir Thomas William Coke, this was the first hat to have a hard top, a smart function for its commissioner was a game warden and would frequently go horse riding.   At first it was called the coke hat, yet as it grew in popularity with the London city gents, it took on the name bowler, since the design was in fact being produced by the Bowler family of Southwark.  Soon the bowler was offered in flexible styles as well, bridging a gap between the soft felt styles of the lower classes and the stiffer top hat styles of the upper classes.  The bowler was the first hat to be mass produced, making it more affordable and popular with the middle class.  It enjoyed many decades of prominence in men’s fashion, until it was surpassed by the fedora in the 1920s.

I have heard many people disagree on what is considered a derby and what is a bowler, usually mentioning something to do with differing shapes and sizes.  They are, however, essentially the same hat.  The bowler took on various dimensions at different times, and was called a derby when it came to America.  The derby was worn popularly by all classes of American tradesmen and artisans.

Hats typically denoted rank in society, but the bowler was the first hat worn across class and did not signify one particular mode of business.  Interestingly, it was one of the few hats chosen by stage and vaudeville entertainers, perhaps because it had become an icon of industrialization and power.  Charlie Chaplin most famously employed it to express the poor man’s woes.  Today, it is commonly seen as a comedic hat due to this legacy, yet its popularity with the creative genre of steampunk has now given this style a firm heading in the arts world as well.

The extent to which this hat seeped into the fabric of society is seen in Rene Magritte’s use of it as an cultural emblem in his surrealist paintings.

You can find a nice version of a beaver felt bowler in O’Lover Hats’ Made to Order Fall/Winter line.