Bowler hat

The bowler hat, also known as a billycock, bob hat, bombín (Spanish) or derby (USA),[1] is a hard felt hat with a rounded crown, originally created by the London hat-makers Thomas and William Bowler in 1849.[2] It has traditionally been worn with semi-formal and informal attire. The bowler, a protective and durable hat style, was popular with the British, Irish, and American working classes during the second half of the 19th century, and later with the middle and upper classes in the United Kingdom, Ireland, and the east coast United States.[3]


The bowler hat is said to have been designed in 1849 by the London hat-makers Thomas and William Bowler to fulfill an order placed by the company of hatters James Lock & Co. of St James's,[4] which had been commissioned by a customer to design a close-fitting, low-crowned hat to protect gamekeepers from low-hanging branches while on horseback at Holkham Hall, the estate of Thomas Coke, 1st Earl of Leicester (seventh creation) in Norfolk. The keepers had previously worn top hats, which were knocked off easily and damaged.[4] The identity of the customer is less certain, with many suggesting it was William Coke.[5] However, research performed by a younger relation of the 1st Earl casts doubt on this story, and it is now believed that the bowler was invented for Edward Coke, the younger brother of Thomas Coke, 2nd Earl of Leicester.[3] When Edward 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.[6]

Cultural significance in the British Isles

The bowler has had varying degrees of significance in British culture. They were popular among the working classes in the 19th century, and from the early 20th century bowler hats were commonly associated with businessmen working in the financial districts, also known as "City Gents". The traditional wearing of bowler hats with City business attire declined during the 1970s.[2] In modern times bowlers are not common, although the so-called City Gent remains a stereotype of Englishmen, wearing a bowler and carrying a rolled umbrella. For this reason, two bowler-hatted men were used in the logo of the British building society (subsequently bank), Bradford & Bingley.[7]

In Scotland and Northern Ireland the bowler hat is worn traditionally by members of the main Loyalist fraternities such as the Orange Order, the Independent Loyal Orange Institution, the Royal Black Preceptory and the Apprentice Boys of Derry for their parades and annual celebrations.[8]

Female officers of British police forces also wear bowler hats as part of their uniforms. They are also part of the uniforms of female police community support officers (PCSOs).

Outside the British Isles

The bowler, not the cowboy hat or sombrero, was the most popular hat in the American West, prompting Lucius Beebe to call it "the hat that won the West".[9] Both cowboys and railroad workers preferred the hat because it would not blow off easily in strong wind while riding a horse, or when sticking one's head out the window of a speeding train. It was worn by both lawmen and outlaws, including Bat Masterson, Butch Cassidy, Black Bart, and Billy the Kid. In the United States the hat came to be known commonly as the derby,[5] and American outlaw Marion Hedgepeth was commonly referred to as "the Derby Kid".

In South America, the bowler, known as bombín in Spanish, has been worn by Quechua and Aymara women since the 1920s, when it was introduced to Bolivia by British railway workers. For many years, a factory in Italy manufactured such hats for the Bolivian market, but they are now made locally.[10]

The bowler hat became used famously by certain actors, such as Charlie Chaplin, Laurel and Hardy, Curly Howard, and John Cleese, and also by the fictional character of John Steed of The Avengers, played by Patrick Macnee.[4]

In the 1964 film Mary Poppins, set in Edwardian London, 1910, the London banker George Banks (played by David Tomlinson) wears a bowler. The British building society Bradford & Bingley registered more than 100 separate trademarks featuring the bowler hat, its long-running logo.[12] In 1995 the bank purchased, for £2,000, a bowler hat which had once belonged to Stan Laurel.[12]

The bowler is part of the Droog uniform that the English character Alex wears in A Clockwork Orange to the extent that contemporary fancy dress outfits for this character refer to the bowler hat.[13][14]

There was a chain of restaurants in Los Angeles, California known as Brown Derby. The first and most famous of these was shaped like a derby.[15] A chain of Brown Derby restaurants in Ohio are still in business today.

Many paintings by the Belgian surrealist artist René Magritte feature bowler hats. The Son of Man consists of a man in a bowler hat standing in front of a wall. The man's face is largely obscured by a hovering green apple. Golconda depicts "raining men" all wearing bowler hats.

Choreographer Bob Fosse frequently incorporated bowler hats into his dance routines. This use of hats as a props, as seen in the 1972 movie Cabaret, would become one of his trademarks.[16]

Notable wearers


  1. "Hat Glossary - Village Hat Shop". Retrieved 22 November 2017.
  2. "History of the Bowler Hat". The Daily Telegraph. Retrieved 3 March 2014.
  3. "The history of the Bowler hat at Holkham" (PDF). Coke Estates Ltd. Archived from the original (PDF) on 22 December 2014.
  4. "Bowler hat makes a comeback". The Daily Telegraph (London). Retrieved 25 September 2011.
  5. Roetzel, Bernhard (1999). Gentleman's Guide to Grooming and Style. Barnes & Noble.
  6. Swinnerton, Jo (2005). The History of Britain Companion. Robson. p. 42. ISBN 1-86105-914-0.
  7. "Who'll get custody of Bradford and Bingley's bowler hat?". BBC News. Retrieved 25 September 2011.
  8. "Bowler Hats, Sashes and Banners: the Orange Order in Northern Ireland". Demotix. Archived from the original on 6 May 2014. Retrieved 21 March 2014.
  9. The Hat That Won the West. Retrieved 10 February 2010.
  10. Eigo, Tim. "Bolivian Americans". Countries and Their Cultures. Retrieved 13 August 2008.
  11. McCabe, John (2004). The Comedy World of Stan Laurel. Robson. p. 143.
  12. "Who'll get custody of Bradford and Bingley's bowler hat?". BBC News. 30 September 2008. Retrieved 2 October 2008.
  13. "Clockwork Orange Fancy Dress Costume Men's Extra Large: Toys & Games". Retrieved 22 November 2017.
  14. "A Clockwork Orange". 2 February 1972. Retrieved 22 November 2017 via
  15. Rubay, Donnell. "The Rogue and the Little Lady: The romance of Wilson Mizner and Anita Loos". The Bernica Herald. Retrieved 1 January 2014.
  16. "Fosse's Inspiration & Trademarks". Bob Fosse. Retrieved 22 November 2017.
  17. "The History of the Bowler Hat or Derby Hat". Retrieved 22 November 2017.
  18. "'Stairway to Heaven': Watch a Moving Tribute to Led Zeppelin at The Kennedy Center". Open Culture. 17 December 2017.
  19. "Charlie Chaplin's bowler hat sold at auction". CBS News (New York). Retrieved 11 June 2016.
  20. Limited, Alamy. "Stock Photo - ROAD TO UTOPIA, Bing Crosby, Bob Hope, 1946.. Courtesy: CSU Archives / Everett Collection". Alamy. Retrieved 22 November 2017.
  21. "Laurel & Hardy - The Official Website". Retrieved 22 November 2017.
  22. John Steed's Fashion. See also Herbert Johnson, who made the bowler for one of the series.
  23. Rettenmund, Matthew (1996). Totally Awesome 80s: A Lexicon of the Music, Videos, Movies, TV Shows, Stars, and Trends of That Decedent Decade. St. Martin's Griffin. p. 39. ISBN 0-31214-436-9.
  24. Hosted by Mike Loades and Chad Houseknecht (26 October 2008). "Chakram". Weapon Masters. Series 1.
  25. "Riddler". 19 September 2014. Retrieved 22 November 2017.

Further reading

  • Fred Miller Robinson, The Man in the Bowler Hat: His History and Iconography (Chapel Hill and London: The University of North Carolina Press, 1993).
  • "Whatever Became of the Derby Hat?" Lucius Beebe, Gourmet, May 1966.
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