Articles | Notes
Raise hat to bowler - society's great leveler
By Peter Bills 1/19/08
It entered pop culture when it was worn by the gang of
thugs in the 1971 film A Clockwork Orange. Ladies and gentlemen, please raise
your hats to the 200th anniversary of the creator of the bowler hat, the icon of
England. On January 25, 1808, William Bowler was born, and a hat that was the
first to cross the boundaries of social division was nigh. The bowler hat was
designed in 1850 to give the horse-mounted game wardens patrolling the estate of
Sir Thomas Coke, the 2nd Earl of Leicester, protection from poachers' sticks and
low-hanging branches of trees.
It needed to be firm to protect the head properly and its design, by the brothers James and George Lock of Mr. Lock, No 6 St James St, London, led to it being called the iron hat. The Lock brothers' design was sent to the renowned hat makers of the day, Thomas & William Bowler of Southwark, London, who produced the prototype. Today, 200 years after Bowler's birth, James Lock & Co, in London's fashionable St James still sells bowler hats. Some items transcend history but the bowler hat made it. Before the bowler, the gentry wore top hats, the working man a flat cloth cap. Hats were made in England in three principal centers, London, Luton and Stockport. Even today, Luton retains its links with the hat industry - its football team is still known as The Hatters.
The craze for bowler hats spread far from the lands of the Earl of Leicester and the heads of his game wardens, Until the 1970s, a sea of bowlers could be seen each morning, emerging from the railway station and bobbing steadily across London Bridge to the City of London. No self-respecting city worker would dream of going to work without wearing one. In 1959, the Cambridge University, Harlequins and England second row rugby forward R.W.D. (David) Marques stepped off the plane in northern Australia on his first Lions tour to Australia and New Zealand carrying a rolled-up black umbrella and wearing a bowler hat at a jaunty angle.
In the last years of the 19th century, the bowler hat could be seen on the heads of the wealthy owners, the gentry and even the workers in just about every British colony. For that was the secret of the bowler. It wasn't just for the upper class; even the humble workers selling wet fish in the London markets and the shipyard workers, wore bowlers. At race meetings, a sea of them dominated the setting. Charlie Chaplin helped popularize it in his films, Laurel and Hardy likewise. But even when the old-style, silent black-and-white films died out, bowlers lived on. The nightclub singer in the film Cabaret played by Liza Minnelli wore one, complete with fetish clothes. Captain Mainwaring, the pompous Home Guard officer of the TV series Dad's Army, wore a bowler when in his daytime attire as manager of the local bank. The suave, elegant John Steed in the TV series The Avengers wore one, as did John Cleese in a TV sketch that sent up the social classes of the English, looking down his nose at a working-class man in a flat cap, played by Ronnie Corbett.
There's no difference between a bowler and a derby. In 1888, the 12th Earl of Derby visited the United States wearing a brown one, and the style became known here as the derby. One hundred years ago, from Old Town to Dublin, it was the standard worn by both blue-collar and white-collar workers. It was the Everyman hat until it was replaced by the fedora and the cloth cap around the 1940s. Along with the three-piece suit and rolled umbrella, until the 1960s the bowler was part of the uniform for British civil servants and starch-shirted office workers.
Archived 2004-10 Alex D. Thrawn for www.MalcolmMcDowell.net