cowboy with bowler

Bowler: The Real Cowboy Hat

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If you wonder what do the English gentleman and the American cowboy have in common, the answer is, among other things, they wore the same type of hat. In Europe, this hat is known as a bowler, while in America it’s known as a derby. 

The story of this hat begins back in 1849, on the estate of Sir Thomas William Coke, the Earl of Leicester. His estate, known as Holkham Hall, was fairly large and his gamekeepers would ride around wearing top hats. However, these top hats would be often damaged by wind or by overhanging tree branches. This is why the earl’s younger brother, Edward Coke, began redesigning the gamekeeper hat with aerodynamics and smaller size in mind. He took his ideas to Thomas Bowler, the local hatter, who made the first Bowler hat to Edward Coke’s specifications. 

The hat’s practicality immediately brought it great popularity and the gamekeepers of Holkham Hall wear it to this day. Later, as today, the bowler became an aesthetic accessory, but this wasn’t always so. It was firstly popular with the working class, which saw it as practical for reasons mentioned before, and since it’s a relatively hard hat, it’d also offer a degree of protection from falling objects. Gentlemen would also wear it, but in more casual settings. Around the 1870s and 80s, different designs by different manufacturers started appearing, followed by ads in the fashion magazines of that time. Some of the hats were softer, meant to be worn with business suits in the cities. 

The story of how this hat got its American name is also interesting. That was the doing of another Brit, this time Edward Smith Stanley, the 12th Earl of Derby who would organise horse races, aka. Derbys. The gentlemen who’d attend these races often wore bowlers, so the hat got its name in America in this way. 

Because the hat was designed for horseback riding, it quickly spread with cowboys, outlaws and lawmen. It was far more widespread and worn than the classic 10 gallon hat which we now know as a “cowboy hat.” The blame for this misconception lies squarely with Hollywood and its unrealistic portrayal of the Wild West’s history. It’s really the bowler which is the cowboy’s hat of choice. 

The bowler was worn by gentlemen in England, cowboys in America and at the same time, many famous Hollywood actors, such as Charlie Chaplin and Laurel and Hardy, as well as John Steed, the lead character of The Avengers (the British series, not the Marvel movies). This hat has its golden years in the first half of the 20th century. 

However, after the Second World War, the US banned the use of mercury in hat curing, out of concerns for public health. Mercury was of course used in the manufacture of some hard hats, so this hat was edged out by the softer types, such as for example the fedora. Around the 60s, it fell to the rise of the hatless society, just like other hats. 

You can thankfully still find this hat. If you type “bowler hat” into the an internet search, most of the photos returned will show women’s hats. Yes, the real cowboy hat, the bowler is primarily a woman’s hat nowadays, with the exception of a few hipsters.
There are also Bolivian women, who wear this hat almost religiously. Here’s another interesting story. In the 1920s, a trader bought a number of bowlers which he intended to sell to British railway workers working in Bolivia. When the bowlers arrived, they turned out to be too small for the British, so he tried offloading them on the local men. The Bolivians, however, were not interested in these hats, so the trader was forced to try selling them to the local women, convincing them that they’re the latest fashion in Europe. Fortunately for him, the local women believed him and started wearing bowlers, making them part of their traditional wardrobe, proudly worn to this very day. 

If you want to have a bowler hat of your own, it’s best you visit your local hatter. I bought my bowler hat, a woman’s hat, at my local hatter’s. It’s made out of wool and it’s softer than the usual bowler. A lot of these hats are made out of polyester and should be avoided, as regular readers will know, being badly made and consisting of unnatural materials. 

If you want an original bowler hat, your can always trawl your local vintage stores, or you can order direct from the original producer, Lock & Co. where Thomas Bowler, the maker of the very first bowler hat used to work. Maybe you’ll have the privilege of living through the next interesting story of this hat, which always has something to tell us. 

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I have a strong urge to wear a bowler hat now. 🙂 I’ll have to get by for now with my baseball hat

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