Bowler hat

Bowler hat, mid-20th century (PFF collection).

The bowler hat, also known as a bob hat, bombín or derby (USA),[1] is a hard felt hat with a rounded crown, created originally during 1849. The bowler, a protective and durable hat style, was popular with the British and American working classes during the remaining 19th century, and later with the middle and upper classes in the United Kingdom and the eastern United States.[2]


The bowler hat is said to have been designed during 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.,[3] 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.[3] The identity of the customer is less certain, with many suggesting it was William Coke.[4] 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.[2] 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.[5]

Cultural significance in the British Isles

Members of the Orange Order celebrating The Twelfth, Belfast 2011

The bowler has had varying degrees of significance in British culture. Popular among the working classes in the 19th century, 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 ended during the 1980s.[6] During 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]

Outside the British Isles

The bowler hat is a traditional part of womenswear among the Quechua and Aymara peoples of South America.

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 America the hat came to be known commonly as the derby,[4] 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]

English comedian Stan Laurel took his standard comic devices from the British music hall: the bowler hat, the deep comic gravity, and nonsensical understatement.[11]

The bowler hat became used famously by certain actors, such as Charlie Chaplin, Laurel and Hardy, John Steed, and John Cleese.[3]

The British bank Bradford and 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 strongly identified as 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 reference the bowler hat.[13][14]

There was a chain of restaurants in Los Angeles, California known as The 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]

The Bob Dylan song On the Road Again includes the lyric "The milkman comes in/ He's wearing a derby hat."[17]

Notable wearers


  1. Hat Glossary
  2. 1 2 3 "The history of the Bowler hat at Holkham" (PDF). Coke Estates Ltd.
  3. 1 2 3 "Bowler hat makes a comeback". The Daily Telegraph (London). Retrieved 25 September 2011.
  4. 1 2 Roetzel, Bernhard (1999). Gentleman's Guide to Grooming and Style. Barnes & Noble.
  5. Swinnerton, Jo (2005). The History of Britain Companion. Robson. p. 42. ISBN 1-86105-914-0.
  6. "History of the Bowler Hat". The Daily Telegraph. Retrieved 3 March 2014.
  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. 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. 1 2 "Who'll get custody of Bradford and Bingley's bowler hat?". BBC News. 30 September 2008. Retrieved 2 October 2008.
  13. Amazon: Costumes: Clockwork Orange
  14. 1 2 IMDB: Clockwork Orange
  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. Bob Fosse
  17. Bob Dylan
  18. The Hat House
  19. "Charlie Chaplin's bowler hat sold at auction". CBS News (New York). Retrieved 11 June 2016.
  20. laurel and Hardy official website
  21. John Steed's Fashion
  22. 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.
  23. DC Comics: The Riddler

Further reading

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