Hats have been made of felt for centuries. In the beginning, they were mostly for men, and were for warmth and protection, later becoming a symbol of status in society. Early men’s hats were often just roughly constructed pull-ons of natural felt in greys fawns and browns. Later , dyeing and shaping of the felt resulted in the shapes we know today:
This distinctive hat was first produced in 1850, and originated when William Coke (later the Earl of Leicester), of Holkham Hall in Norfolk, decided that his gamekeepers and estate workers needed a hard protective hat as part of their working attire.
He consulted his hatters, James & George Lock & Co. of St James’ Street in London, who had been established since 1759. They designed a stiff rounded-top hat with a fairly small brim, made of rabbit fur felt stiffened with a substance called shellac. The sample one was made by feltmaking company Thomas & William Bowler, and the hat was approved when William Coke tested it by standing on it to see if it was strong enough.
Obviously it was; and ‘the Bowler’ as it became known, was worn by a large variety of men, firstly in country situations, but in time becoming a symbol of status; being seen on the heads of Gentlemen farmers, Judges at Agricultural shows and eventually becoming the accepted wear of City Gents travelling to and from their work in London. My father, and both my uncles wore a Bowler daily, and Pa’s and my Uncle Gerald’s are both in the collection, together with one belonging to 1970’s airline magnate Freddie Laker.
This is an old Bowler, fairly recently acquired. Made by a company called FALCON , it shows the earlier high crown style, and probably dates from pre 1900.
1940’s/1950’s Bowler, made by Austin Reed, which belonged to my father, and was worn up until his death in 1955.
The crown is much shallower and flatter than the previous picture. But by the late 1970’s, their use had practically ceased, and informality was creeping in everywhere.
As you can see from the pictures, the early Bowlers had somewhat deeper crowns than later models, which are generally lower and flatter in outline, the shallower form coming into being around the beginning of the Twentieth Century. Just like womens’ fashions, new styles were continually being introduced, to try and persuade gentlemen to part with their money and be the most up to date.
Many other manufacturers copied the design, including Christy’s and Stetson to name a couple of famous ones, and they came in varying degrees of hardness, from crash-hats for riding and hunting, to fairly soft ones easily pushed out of shape.
It is quite distinctive in style, being frequently adorned with contrasting wide satin ribbon, or with elongated and ‘waisted’ crown, and always only worn by the women !
The fashion is fairly recent in tradition, only having been adopted since the 1920’s, when there were large numbers of British workers in that part of South America, constructing the railways. Local people copied the style,but made them smaller, so they sit higher on the head, and the felt is not generally so stiff.
The Bowler hat is still evolving for special occasions….at the 2012 Olympic Games in London, bright blue felt Bowlers were worn by the ushers….each hat adorned on the top by a light bulb operated from a hidden battery pack.
An interesting lecture on the history of the Bowler hat was given in July 2014 by Timothy Long, curator of fashion at the Museum of London.