When it comes to hats, none is more English than the bowler hat. There was a time when no self-respecting banker or civil servant would venture out without one. How did the bowler hat style begin?
The bowler hat style began in Victorian England when it was worn by gamekeepers at Holkham Hall, Norfolk. The bowler hat’s low crown made it easier to stay on the gamekeepers’ heads as they rode through the estate. Its hardened felt also protected from blows to the head.
The bowler hat went from a working man’s protective headgear to the height of middle-class sartorial respectability. No doubt, you’re brimming with questions on how the bowler hat style began, so let’s see below what we can pull out of the history of this hat.
What Is a Bowler Hat?
If you’re not clear what a bowler hat is, think Charlie Chaplin or Laurel and Hardy. Read more about Chaplin’s hat in this article. For a more suave and sophisticated reminder, think John Steed. The bowler hat has an iconic low rounded crown sitting above a narrow brim that curls upwards on the sides. The low crown is in contrast to the high crowned top hat.
While the top hat is soft, the bowler hat is made from hardened felt, which made the bowler more durable than the top hat and was one of the features fundamental to the bowler hat’s design.
The following clip shows how both styles are made and you can clearly see the differences between them.
What Led to the Creation of the Bowler Hat?
The original purpose of the bowler hat was as protective headgear, or as some people think, it might have been the original hard hat.
The bowler hat’s beginnings lie at the country estate of Holkham Hall in England, the seat of the Earls of Leicester, which was in 1849, at the time of the 2nd Earl of Leicester Thomas William Coke. The estate’s gamekeepers, while carrying out their duties, had previously worn the hat-of-the-day: a top hat.
However, with its high crown, the top hat often fell off the gamekeeper’s heads as they rode, which was a particular hazard in wooded areas of the estate. Top hats also got easily damaged because they were somewhat soft.
Clearly, something more practical was necessary, which brought the hard-felted, low-crowned bowler hat into being. The hardened felt was used to make it provide better protection for gamekeepers’ heads.
The sturdy construction also made the bowler more durable and less liable to damage. Additionally, its lower crown reduced the risk of the hat getting knocked off by low branches or blown off while riding.
Although it was a pragmatic solution to a problem, the bowler had a smart look to it. The vicarious vanity of the Earl of Leicester required that even his gamekeepers had to look stylish.
Where Does the Bowler Hat Name Come From?
It was the 2nd Earl’s younger brother, Edward Coke, who set about finding a new hat for the estate’s gamekeepers. He approached the renowned hatters, Lock & Co of London, with his requirements, and in turn, Lock & Co instructed the hat maker, William Bowler, to create a prototype. It’s from William Bowler that the hat took its name.
Interestingly, Lock & Co originally called the hat a coke. At the time, it was the hatter’s tradition to name a custom-made hat after the first customer to order it, which in this case, was Edward Coke. Indeed, Lock & Co still refers to this hat style as a coke. Read more intriguing facts about bowler hats in this article.
Why Was the Bowler Hat Style So Popular?
Now that you know that the bowler hat was originally a functional piece of protective headgear for gamekeepers, it’s no surprise that it first gained popularity amongst laborers who also needed head protection.
However, Locke & Co’s ledgers reportedly also show bowler orders from high-society gentlemen, including Edward Coke’s friends. That’s because it wasn’t just practical, but it was also rather dapper. So, whereas the top hat had worked its way down the social echelons, the bowler hat climbed the social ladder.
Whether you were a workman, a gentleman, a businessman, or even royalty, it didn’t matter. It was the golden age of hat-wearing, and the bowler hat was functional and stylish at the same time, enabling it to span class divides.
It also crossed international boundaries. For example, in Bolivia, where it’s known as a bombin, women of the indigenous Aymara wear it, but in the US, it’s known as a derby hat.
Naturally, the royal connection helped. So too is its adoption by iconic entertainers like Charlie Chaplin and Laurel and Hardy, while the notorious Wild West outlaw Butch Cassidy sported one.
Still, most people associate the bowler hat with the stereotypical image of English bankers and civil servants, or the archetypal British gent. It has become somewhat ironic when you consider its original use was protective headwear for workmen.
Has the Bowler Hat Style Fallen Out of Favor?
It’s not so much that the bowler hat fell out of favor. Rather hat-wearing, in general, declined in the post-war era, and bowler hats were just a victim of that trend. Some classic hats like the trilby, fedora, and Panama have come back into fashion in recent years. However, the hat revival largely seems to have passed the bowler by.
Perhaps it’s hard to shake the bowler hat’s associations with stuffy bankers and civil servants or the ridiculousness of the Ministry of Silly Walks. However, bowlers are still available for purchase. You can even buy one from Lock & Co, but if you’re on a budget, you might need to look elsewhere. For example, this Scala Classico Men’s Wool Felt Bowler Hat on Amazon gets you the look without breaking the bank.
Let’s recap. The bowler hat style began in Victorian England, and its design gave gamekeepers on an English estate a durable and more practical replacement for their cumbersome top hats.
The practical yet stylish design made the bowler the hat of choice across all social classes and occupations. Its distinctive rounded crown remains instantly recognizable, but now perhaps that recognition is more of a caricature of Britishness than as the stylish headgear it once was.