This Hat’s History Will Bowl You Over | St James's London


This Hat’s History Will Bowl You Over

In 1849, Edward Coke was tired of hats falling off the heads of his gamekeepers and so he went straight to St James's to meet with the head hatter at Lock&Co. Hatters, a fellow named Thomas Bowler.

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The brother of the 2nd Earl of Leicester needed a hat that could weather the staff galloping about his Norfolk estate because, as it turns out, tall top hats and low-hanging branches do not mix. And so Coke went straight to St James’s to meet with the head hatter at Lock & Co. Hatters, a fellow named Thomas Bowler.

Once presented with the very first bowler hat, legend has it Mr. Coke threw it to the ground and started jumping on it. The resilient little hat passed the stomp test and the two agreed on a price of 12 shillings, unaware of the extent to which the bowler hat would become engrained in the sartorial culture of Europe, America and beyond.

For the rest of the Victorian period, the bowler was the hat of choice for manual labourers in Britain and soon crossed the pond to the wild American West. Here it surpassed the cowboy hat, stetson and sombrero as the “hat that won the west,” worn famously by the notorious train robber Butch Cassidy. An American newspaper article in the 1950s suggested the biggest hoax of our imagination is to assume that the hat of the Wild West was anything other than the hat of “Old Bond Street.”

But perhaps the most curious dissemination of the bowler has been to Bolivia. In the 1920s, bowler hats arrived with the influx of British railway workers, but somewhere a shipment carrying hats too small for the mens’ heads was peddled to the locals and caught on. Indigenous Aymaran women absorbed these hats in what evolved into, and still is today, their traditional dress: a full, ruffled skirt, a patterned shawl, a generous helping of jewellery, all topped off with a bowler. It is said the angle in which the hat is worn indicates marital status.

Back in London, the bowler became a benchmark of the City banker’s uniform and remained in place until the 1980s. In popular culture, the hat came to symbolise 20th-century icons: Charlie Chaplin had one firmly planted on his head, while the Monty Python gang didn’t dare walk silly without one. Add a fake eyelash and we’re drawn into Kubrick’s Nadsat-spewing world of A Clockwork Orange. From the dystopian to the surreal, observe how heavily the bowler features in the paintings of Belgian artist René Magritte.

On this side of the century, bowler hats have waned in ubiquity, but certainly not in significance. Heritage hatters, including Lock & Co. continue to craft in St James’s, and the Earl of Leicester still buys one for every gamekeeper to celebrate their first year of service.