Where has it gone? Once the height of sartorial elegance, and beloved by city bankers, civil servants and the man about town, the bowler hat has virtually disappeared. A symbol of respectability (warranted or not), social standing and English tradition has dematerialised somehow. We can, of course, trust royalty to maintain such tradition and so they do, but mostly on state occasions. Perhaps this is what maintains such pomp and ceremony – something now out of the ordinary, but a stalwart from the past, reminding the general public of how things were, once.
I find myself wondering how the bowler hat came into existence and was surprised to find that far from originally being an English gentleman’s accessory, it was actually designed and made to suit (no pun intended here) a gamekeeper’s head. It was first commissioned by one Edward Coke, British soldier, politician and younger brother of the 2nd Earl of Leicester, in 1849. Coke’s motivation was to protect his gamekeepers’ heads from low-hanging branches as they went about their business on his land at Holkham Hall in Norfolk. They had previously worn top hats which were often knocked off and damaged.
Coke had visited the premises of Lock & Co. in St. James’s, London, to request a close-fitting, low-crowned hat. This requirement was passed on by Lock & Co. to the London hat makers Thomas and William Bowler who produced the hat. Reportedly, Coke stamped on the hat twice as he went to collect it. Its strength was proved and Coke paid 12 shillings for it. Although the word “bowler” has remained to this day, and aptly so after its designers, Lock & Co. instigated their customary practice by naming the hat the ‘Coke’ (pronounced Cook) after the customer who had ordered it. Back in Norfolk the hat soon became known as the ‘Billy Coke’, and then shortened to the ‘Billycock’.
Becoming quite strangely fascinated by this particular item of men’s headwear I look elsewhere to see if the bowler hat was a particularly English accoutrement as it would seem. In the the late 1800s the bowler had become very popular with the working classes in Britain and, as colonialism expanded, the hat found its way abroad. British railway workers in Bolivia, for example, introduced the hat to the women of the Quechua who wear them to this day. The bowler was also popular in the American West, where it became known as the ‘Derby’. Cowboys and railroad workers found that the hat firmly fixed to the head – quite useful presumably when galloping across the plains and canyons or leaning out of a speeding train. Butch Cassidy and Billy the Kid both had bowlers – sorry, derbys.
Surprisingly, and rather incongruously, I find that the bowler was, and is, much worn in the Niger Delta area of Nigeria. The hat here is seen by men as a fashion accessory, usually teamed with a walking stick, and has now become part of the regional costume. Quite astonishing to think that one small part of clothing has found its way to distant continents and been adopted by both men and women as part of their everyday garb.
Back in England, and from the early 20th century, the bowler, similarly, began to permeate every aspect of sartorial culture and, as so often with stereotypical images, it appeared in various forms of popular culture, too, almost mirroring its ubiquitous entry into common attire. From Chaplin’s ‘tramp’ (his were purchased from Lock & Co, whose inventory archive contains Chaplin’s own orders) to gentlemen, with Patrick MacNee in The Avengers, to John Cleese’s city gent from The Ministry of Silly Walks, and who can forget that razor-edged bowler thrown by Oddjob in Goldfinger. The ‘coke’ had become, arguably, the hat for all sizes, classes, occasions and professions. In time, however, it began to define one profession in particular, the ‘City Gent’. I don’t expect anyone thought anything of it at the time, but over the years, as the hat began to disappear from city attire, it somehow became an iconic stereotype of the typical English businessman, even becoming an advertising ploy to convey English respectability in the logo – two bowler-hatted men – of the British building society, Bradford & Bingley.
I find, today, that Lock & Co. are still in business at 6 St. James’s Street, London. Founded in 1676, it is one of the oldest hatters businesses in England and is a holder of a royal warrant to the Duke of Edinburgh and the Prince of Wales. It makes me wonder if the once ubiquitous bowler, having now long passed into the annals of London fashion, has a contemporary.
Well, having enquired with Lock & Co as to what’s popular, I see the other ‘classic’, the flecked British-milled 8-piece tweed ‘Tremelo’ cap, leading the charge. Possibly more suited to rural pursuits I can still envision it, complete with owner of course, striding out across Primrose Hill or Regent’s Park on a Sunday afternoon. But I can also inform all gentlemen readers that many a man about town – and in a fitting tribute to the late musician – is sporting the ‘Bowie Fedora’, a fur-felt hat guaranteed not only to make a sartorial statement but also to keep those Arctic winds at bay. Quite Bohemian-looking on its own but very smart with the right outfit.
Personally, I think the fedora wins hands down, or should I say heads up, but, surely, any Englishman worth his mettle should have at least one of each of those mentioned, thus kitted out for any occasion.
For more information about Lock & Co, including information on sizing and details of their range for men and women, visit www.lockhatters.co.uk.
For more information about Holkham Hall in Norfolk,including details of events, educational and farming programmes, visit www.holkham.co.uk.