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Bowler hat

The bowler hat, also known as a derby (US) or billycock, is a hard felt hat with a rounded crown originally created in 1849 for Edward Coke, the younger brother of the 2nd Earl of Leicester.

History

The bowler hat was devised in 1849 by the London hatmakers Thomas and William Bowler to fulfil an order placed by the firm of hatters Lock & Co. of St. James's, a company established in 1676 which is still in business. Lock & Co. had been commissioned by a customer to design a close-fitting, low-crowned hat to protect his gamekeepers' heads from low-hanging branches while on horseback. The keepers had previously worn top hats, which were easily knocked off and damaged. It was also hoped that the new style of hat would protect the keepers if they were attacked by poachers. Lock & Co. then commissioned the Bowler brothers to solve the problem. While most accounts state that the customer was William Coke, a nephew of the 1st Earl of Leicester, recent research has cast some doubt on this, and it is now believed that it was instead 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 Locks & Company's usual practice, the hat was called the "Coke" hat after the customer who had ordered it, and this is most likely why the hat became became known as the "Billy Coke" or "Billycock" hat in Norfolk.

Peaking in popularity towards the end of the 19th century the bowler hat offered a middle ground between the formality of the top hat, which was associated with the upper classes, and the casual soft flat caps worn by the working classes.

Cultural significance

The bowler became a cultural identifier, ironically with two completely different meanings: throughout most of England it was associated with professional servants, e.g. butlers, and so upon seeing a man wearing a bowler in a pub or on the street, it was fairly safe to assume he was a "gentleman's gentleman," meaning a valet, manservant or butler; in London itself, however, it was associated with professionals, and so a man wearing a bowler in The City could safely be assumed to be a lawyer, stockbroker, banker or government official. As the traditional headwear of London city 'gents' it has become something of an English cultural icon. The bowler was also to some extent adopted by the surrealist movement, particularly by Magritte, as an object which typified the absurdity of "normal life" and appeared in many surrealist paintings in one guise or another.

However, Englishmen stopped wearing hats as a matter of course in the 1960s, and most young English people in the 21st century have never seen a bowler hat worn as part of normal dress. The decline of the bowler is possibly linked to the rise in car ownership in the 1960s which would make it difficult to wear . It is, however, still commonly seen worn at some formal public events, such as by town councillors at Armistice Day ceremonies. It is also traditionally worn by members of the Orange Order in Northern Ireland during their 12 July annual parades, though usage has declined. A bowler hat was once worn by the gaffer of a team of furniture removers although this tradition has died out.

In other countries

In the United States this hat is also known as a derby hat, after Edward Smith-Stanley, 12th Earl of Derby, founder in 1780 of the Epsom Derby. The cultural significance of this style of hat was slightly different in the United States; though certainly not exclusively so, the derby tended to be associated with urban culture, and particularly with well-to-do people who had risen from the working class. Hence, it was often seen on the heads of "machine politicians", urban Irish-descended "ward heelers" and others, and so often appears in movies, comic books and comic strips of the 1930s and 1940s as a silent signal that the wearer is of this group. Al Smith, who exemplified the urban Tammany politician of the 1920s, was often seen in his distinctive derby; while typically, men's full-sized derbies are black, Al Smith always wore a brown derby.

A small bowler hat worn at an angle is typically referred to as a "gruff hat" or "pickle hat".

In Germany, the hat is known as Melone (melon), due to its shape. Similarly in France it is known as "chapeau melon".

The bowler hat - called a bombin - has also been worn by Quechua and Aymara women in Peru and Bolivia 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 produced locally.

Famous people who wore the bowler hat

Notes

References

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