The Bowler Hats… Forever!
Historians generally agree that some form of head-covering must have been the first article of apparel put on by primitive man. Heads were certainly covered wherever sun and rain were severe.
The bowler and the derby are simply two names for the same style of hat. Bowler hats began to be called derby hats after an American hatter noticed a large number of English gentleman sporting them at an English derby (derbies are races typically restricted to three year old horses and were popular in 19th century England).
This type of hat was invented by William Bowler, a London hatter, and originally came as a piece of riding headwear, more practical for active sports than the high beaver hats that dominated for street wear. The bowler was called a derby by a hatter in this country who sponsored it after noting its general use at the English Derby race. The bowler hat, also known as a derby hat (especially in USA), is an easily identifiable piece of headwear. Though still used to make a fashion statement, and, surprisingly, still very popular with certain groups of South American women today, the bowler hat is no longer as universally popular as it was a century ago. Regardless, from its original intent as a work hat in the mid-nineteenth century to its prominence as an all-purpose men’s hat in the early twentieth century, the bowler has left its indelible mark on men’s fashion.
The bowler hat is usually black in color. The best quality hats are made of felt created from the waterproof underbelly fur of rabbits and hares, though cheaper models made from wool-felt are available as well. The crown of the hat is round, lower than a top hat and very sturdy. The brim is short and encircles the entire hat.
The bowler hat was designed and created by hat makers Thomas and William Bowler in 1849 for the business Lock & Co. in London, England. Many sources state that William Coke, a nephew of the second Earl of Leicester (though others cite Edward Coke, a younger brother of the same Earl), commissioned Lock & Co. to create a low but sturdy hat for his gamekeepers. The gamekeepers would constantly knock off their top hats while riding horses under low branches, and needed something lower and more durable to sit atop their heads.
Initially the hat was called a coke (rhymes with “cook”) after the man who placed the order, and in Norfolk, England, it came to be known as a billy coke (or billycock) hat. Eventually the hat came to be known as a bowler, named after its designers. In the United States, it came to be known as a derby hat as it grew in popularity among those who attended horse races. In Bolivia and Peru, where it is popular among women, the hat is called a bombin.
Prior to the popularity of the bowler, English hats were indicative of the wearer’s social status. Top hats were donned by the upper classes, while flat, floppy hats were worn by working class men. As a hat designed for men at work, everybody from street vendors to wealthy men on business errands in the city wore the bowler. The bowler was not restricted to those of a certain class, and it became a popular piece of headwear for all social ranks.
Many comics of the silent film era wore bowlers, most notably Charlie Chaplin and Laurel and Hardy. As the bowler waned in popularity in the twentieth century, it became less an efficient form of head covering and more a fashion statement. Liza Minnelli’s character in “Cabaret” wore a bowler to match her sparse clothing, and the destructive gang in “Clockwork Orange” wore bowlers while swinging canes as they mocked and harassed the upper class.
Bowlers are still popular among Aymara women of the highlands of Bolivia and Peru, where they were first seen in the 1920s. Called a bombin, a woman who wears one is referred to as a cholita. There are varying stories of how it came to be so popular in the region. One story describes how a large shipment of bowlers arrived in Bolivia for the European workers there. The hats were too small, so they were instead dispersed to the locals (and indeed, it is fashionable there to wear a small size). Another tale involves a Bolivian merchant who had too many bowlers, so he marketed his excess hats as accessories for women.