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.
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.
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
or government official. As the traditional headwear of London
' 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
- Curly Howard would wear a derby hat, which gave him the chance to call it a "doiby" in his Brooklyn accent.
- Spooky the Tuff Little Ghost, a fixture in comic books, also wore a "doiby."
- Downtown Julie Brown wore a bowler hat on MTV's hit dance show Club MTV, which aired from 1985-1992.
- Ian Anderson was seen wearing a red bowler hat at numerous performances with Jethro Tull
- Lucius Beebe noted early- and mid-20th century boulevardier, author, journalist, gourmand, and railroad enthusiast
- Aviation pioneers, Americans Orville & Wilbur Wright, and pioneering French aviators Alberto Santos-Dumont and Louis Blériot
- Charlie Chaplin, a comedian from the early part of the 20th century
- Moon Mullins
- Matthew Beard, who played "Stymie" in the Little Rascals movies (he was given his original bowler by Stan Laurel)
- Lou Costello wore one occasionally in films, but was always seen in a too-small derby on television's The Abbott and Costello Show.
- Captain Peacock of the television show Are You Being Served?
- Captain George Mainwaring a fictional character in Dad's Army played by Arthur Lowe
- Comedian John Valby has always worn a black bowler hat on stage
- Malcolm McDowell's character Alex wears a bowler hat in A Clockwork Orange
- Superman villain Mr. Mxyzptlk
- Agatha Christie's famous detective character Hercule Poirot regularly wears a bowler hat.
- The villain in Erich Kästner's children's novel "Emil and the Detectives" is known only as "The man in the bowler hat"
- Porters at Cambridge University and Christ Church College Oxford
- John Cleese in the infamous Ministry of Silly Walks
- The Plug Uglies, a notorious street gang of 19th century Baltimore, MD, wore the bowler hat (called a "plug hat") which served as a helmet and occasional weapon in fights
- Corporal Thaddeus Aloysius Cadwallander "Dum Dum" Dugan, of Sgt. Fury and his Howling Commandos
- Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy, the slapstick comedy duo Laurel and Hardy of the 1920s and 30s
- Dominic Monaghan, actor of Lord of the Rings and Lost
- Yuber from the Suikoden series wears one in Suikoden 3
- Sir Winston Churchill, British politician
- Wavy Gravy, American political activist
- Jose Rizal, Philippine national hero. He wore a bowler hat at his execution
- The paintings of Belgian Surrealist artist René Magritte
- Leopold Bloom in James Joyce's novel Ulysses
- Jakob Dylan of The Wallflowers
- In Waiting for Godot by Samuel Beckett, the only description of costume is that all four major characters wear bowler hats
- Patrick Macnee as the character John Steed, on the British series The Avengers
- Madness (famous music group)
- Clarinetist Acker Bilk
- In the 1986 film Pretty in Pink, Duckie wears a bowler hat
- Valet-extraordinaire Jeeves, particularly the version played by Stephen Fry
- Big Smoke in Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas
- High significance is placed on Sabine's bowler hat from the novel "The Unbearable Lightness of Being" by Milan Kundera and it is depicted in both the novel's cover artwork and the one sheet for the film version
- Green bowler hats become a laughable fashion trend in Vile Bodies by Evelyn Waugh
- Batman villain The Riddler
- In the 1999 remake of The Thomas Crown Affair starring Pierce Brosnan, Crown uses numerous doubles wearing bowler hats to trick his pursuers; inspired by Magritte's Surrealist painting The Son of Man
- The Harry Potter character Cornelius Fudge is rarely seen without a lime-green bowler. Mad-Eye Moody also wears one when he needs to conceal his magical eye.
- The detectives Thomson and Thompson (originally Dupont and Dupond) in The Adventures of Tintin are easily recognizable by their trademark black bowlers
- The character Oddjob in the James Bond novel Goldfinger used a metal razor-edged bowler hat as a concealed weapon. It appears more of a flat-topped top hat in the movie, but still has the metal edge and functions as a weapon.
- The rapper Nate Dogg usually wears a bowler hat in his music videos
- Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, 19th century French painter
- Mr. Potato Head from the 1995 film Toy Story and its 1999 sequel Toy Story 2 has a black bowler
- The fictional character Homsar in the Homestar Runner online cartoon series wears an orange bowler hat, which often pops up into the air and moves around, yet almost always returns to his head; several other bowler hats are seen in the Homestar Runner universe
- Bowler hats were among the trademark props of choreographer Bob Fosse. Liza Minnelli is portrayed wearing a bowler hat on the cover for the motion picture Cabaret, which Fosse directed, and is also seen wearing it several times during the movie.
- John Hartford, American Bluegrass musician and singer-songwriter, wore a bowler during many of his performances
- Cartoon character Mr Benn, usually seen wearing a pinstriped suit and bowler hat
- Jack White , of the White Stripes, wore a bowler hat in the music video for "Dead Leaves and the Dirty Ground." He also wore a bowler hat during the "White Blood Cells" era.
- "Bowler", the host of the Norwegian entertainment program for children called "Kykkelikokkos"
- Keith ‘Monkey’ Warren of The Adicts: the bowler is part of his costume
- In the Three Stooges short Disorder in the Court (1936), when a bowler-wearing Curly is asked by the defense attorney to "kindly speak English and drop the vernacular", a puzzled Curly looks at his hat and famously replies, "Vuhnaculah? That's a doiby!"
- Doiby Dickles, a cab driver who assists the Golden Age superhero Green Lantern. A native of Brooklyn, Dickles has nicknamed himself for his derby hat, which he pronounces "doiby".
- "Brooklyn" (Dan Turpin), a member of the Golden Age comic book crime-fighting team the Boy Commandos (in the WW2 era), wears a bowler at all times and is nicknamed for his native borough in New York City
- Lord Bowler, bounty hunter in The Adventures of Brisco County Jr.
- Simon Koch, musician and TV writer
- Brian Viglione, drummer of the self-proclaimed "punk cabaret" duo The Dresden Dolls, wears a bowler as part of the group's miming tradition.
- Bat Masterson, Old West adventurer, lawman, and writer, wore a bowler and carried a cane even while working as a lawman in Dodge City with Wyatt Earp
- Mr. John Smith, a fictional character from the Nickelodeon series Hey Arnold!, lives in room 13 of the boarding house with Arnold and his family. His only distinguishing characteristic is, in fact, his bowler.
- The television series Firefly featured a recurring character named Badger, a rogue masquerading as a respectable businessperson, who wore a bowler hat
- American automata-maker Dug North wears a bowler and has adopted the bowler as part of his logo image
- Stuart Murdoch of the band Belle & Sebastian
- Eddie Jordan, former District Attorney of Orleans Parish, Louisiana and former Federal Prosecutor who successfully prosecuted Edwin Edwards. Jordan is well known for almost always wearing a bowler hat when appearing in public.
- John Bonham drummer of the English rock band Led Zeppelin
- Bowler Hat Guy (aka Michael 'Goob' Yagoobian) is known very well for his evil robotic bowler hat named DOR-15 (aka Doris) in the 2007 film, Meet the Robinsons
- Willie "The Lion" Smith always wore a Derby because his mother said it made him look "dignified."
- Otto Šimánek as Pan Tau in a children's television series of the same name
- Detlef Soost, a German dancer, used to wear a bowler hat in a German TV show. Based on this the term "Mr. Soost's hat" became part of German youth slang.
- 'The Bloke' from the movie, 'The Sentimental Bloke'
- Ding-a-Ling, the diminutive sidekick of Hokey Wolf
- Actress Keira Knightley wears a dark brown bowler hat in her advertisements for Chanel's Coco Mademoiselle campaign, in which she plays Coco Chanel.
- Tito Jackson
- Tom DeLonge appeared in the Angels and Airwaves Everything's Magic Short Film wearing a bowler hat
- Addams Family member Cousin Itt
- Paul Smith, lead singer of the British Indie band Maximo Park
- Paul Newman wore a bowler in the classic western, "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid"
- Mr. Tusks, of Dinosaur Comics, occasionally wears a tiny bowler hat in his capacity as the (vice) mayor of Tiny Towne.
- Tom Waits eschewed his famous porkpie for a spiffy bowler on the 2008 Glitter and Doom Tour
- Peter Clemenza from The Godfather film and novel is depicted to always wear a bowler hat.
- Demi Lovato teenage, singer/songwriter & actress (Camp Rock) occasionally wears bowler hat
- Butch Cassidy Old West Outlaw. Pictured wearing a bowler in a well-known photograph with his gang, The Wild Bunch.