The stiff, dome-shaped felt hat known as the bowler hat has been called by many names. Whether referred to as a derby hat, coke hat, iron hat or bowler, this has become one of the most well known and popular hats in history. The bowler hat has successfully crossed the boundaries of social classes in England as well as the United States. This iconic piece has a long and distinguished history.
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The bowler hat made its debut in London in 1850. It was designed as a hard hat for game wardens to wear when patrolling on horseback. The hat needed a sturdy and practical design to protect the wearer from poachers' sticks and low hanging branches. The most popular rendition of the story of the bowler hat states that Sir William Coke, a nephew of the first Earl of Leicester commissioned the hat from the St. James Street hatters, George and James Lock. However, some conflicting renditions of the tale indicate that it may have been Sir Thomas Coke, the second Earl of Leicester or Edward Coke, his younger brother who commissioned the piece.
The Locks' design was created by the Bowler Brothers, Thomas and William. The name of the creators in conjunction with the hat's distinct bowl shape earned it the name "bowler hat." In London, however, the hat was also briefly known as a "Coke Hat" after the man who commissioned its design. Popular stories about the first bowler hat indicate that upon receiving the piece, Coke took it into the street and stomped on it to test its stability and hardiness. Satisfied with the results, he paid 12 shillings for the hat, placed it atop his head, and left. More than 150 years after its debut, the bowler hat is still sold at James Lock & Co. in London.
The sturdy bowler hat, sometimes referred to as the "iron hat," was soon adopted as the headgear of the working man. Unlike the top hat, which was a fashion statement for the well-to-do, the bowler hat transcended social boundaries, earning popularity with nearly every class of London citizen. From street traders and wet fish sellers to bankers and gentry, the bowler hat was the new craze.
When the bowler hat first came to America it was commonly the attire of horse riders at derby events. This earned it the name of "derby hat" in the United States. The hat quickly gained popularity overseas as well. The derby hat was soon worn by nearly all classes of American tradesman and artisans. With wild popularity in both America and the United Kingdom, the bowler hat has become one of the most well-known hats in history.
As the style of every day hat-wearing by men began to diminish in the 1960s, the bowler hat found a new niche among comedic performers. Charlie Chaplin and Laurel and Hardy can hardly be pictured without this distinct headgear. The bowler hat was frequently used as a prop as much as a fashion statement. The hats were crushed, punctured, and blown from the head of the wearer throughout their comedic acts. Bowler hats infiltrated all manner of entertainment and can be seen on Arthur Lowe as Captain Mainwaring in "Dad's Army," on Patrick Macnee as John Steed in "The Avengers," and on the gang of thugs in "A Clockwork Orange."
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