Bowled over

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.

Yr. Humble Chronicler with mask, bowler hat and double chin. I still have the hat.

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.



Filed under 19th century, 20th Century, Fashion and trends, History, London, The City

4 responses to “Bowled over

  1. Hugh Brown

    It’s also worth noting that the bowler was also the headgear of choice for the upper echelons of the artisan class. In any photograph of early 20th century manufacturing workers, the foreman is always prominent in apron (or dustcoat), moustache and billycock.

    So perhaps a minor contributory factor in the decline of the bowler was the major restructuring and subsequent decline in British industry in the second half of the 20th century.

  2. Howie

    Bowler hats are indeed a very classy item of clothing. Being a wearer of head-wear, I have recently added a bowler hat to my collection from none other than Austin Reed of Regent Street. I have to say, it did take me ages to find somewhere which stocks a bowler hat, and I did not want to buy one online in case I did not like the way it fits.

    I think the Austin Reed bowlers are only available in their flagship store at 100 Regent Street, as the lining is stamped with that address as part of the pattern.

    Shall be wearing my bowler with pride along with my cane umbrella.

    Planning on getting either a brown or grey one for less “formal” wear. Any suggestion as to which?

    • TGW

      I think it depends on the sort of colours you wear normally. If you tend to favour earth tones, then brown. More neutral, colder colours, then grey. I’ve seen bright red ones for sale, but that’s just silly.

  3. Ian

    Are the Bowler Bros still in existence?…I note a website bearing their name but can’t seem to access other than the front page…
    Does anyone know where to obtain a Pith helmet…preferably the Wolseley design?…Locks had one a while back in their catalogue but it apears to have been deleted from their web site…

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