If there’s one item of clothing associated with London more than any other – uniforms aside – it must surely be the bowler hat. The chap on the left knows what I’m talking about. Blue suit, immaculate tie, furled umbrella, buttonhole and the lot topped off by the immortal bowler. You might consider accessorising with a grey walrus moustache or going with grey striped trousers, or perhaps substituting a cane if the weather is particularly sunny, but you get the idea. The bowler is an essential part of the city gent uniform.
Sadly, these days they’re a bit of a rarity. Most of the gents you see wearing them are Of A Certain Age and usually A Conservative Bent. Indeed, hats of any kind seem to be out of fashion as clobber for the working day – in winter a fellow might wear a woolly hat, but that’s about it. I suspect it’s something to do with London becoming a World City and all. The venerable organisations that employed bowler-hat-wearers were forced to get all dynamic and modern, a lot of the old financial institutions moved out to the Docklands and fashion shifted. A shame, I think a chap looks good in a bowler.
It’s appropriate that the bowler hat should be associated with London, for it was in this very city that the hat was invented. James Lock & Co, perhaps the most famous hatters in Britain, were commissioned in 1849 to come up with a more workaday alternative to the top hat. The problem the customer had was that his gamekeepers kept getting their toppers knocked off or otherwise damaged in the course of their duties. Lock & Co subcontracted out to a pair of hatters named Thomas and William Bowler – some accounts say that the Bowler brothers devised the hat, others that they simply made it to Lock’s designs.
This came as a bit of a surprise to me – I’d always assumed the name “bowler” referred to the fact that it was shaped like a bowl, or possibly that there was some obscure cricket connection. The idea that it was named after Messrs. Bowler did not occur to me.
Anyway, the hat matched the specifications perfectly. It was resilient, close-fitting and comfortable. Lock & Co originally named it the Coke hat after the customer (popularly believed to be one William Coke). When it took off, it became known as the bowler in most of Britain, the derby in America and the billycock (from Billy Coke?) in Northumberland.
And take off it did. Now, Yr. Humble Chronicler is firmly of the belief that the top hat takes some beating (not literally, though, it dents if you do that). But it has to be admitted that it’s not always the most practical item of headgear. The bowler, by contrast, is an excellent way of keeping the head warm. It’s strong, it won’t blow off, it won’t get knocked off and it’s easily stored. In the 1850s, it also had the advantage that it could be mechanically mass-produced and was therefore cheaper.
As a result of all these factors, they became a massive worldwide success. They didn’t really go properly out of style until over a century later. Indeed, in some places – particularly West Africa, I’m told – they’re still popular among the more dapper gent.
In Britain, the general consensus seems to be that they died out at some point in the 1970s/80s – which ties in with my theory that they disappeared when London’s financial district got all flashy and modern. In other words, blame Thatcher.