The distinctively British bowler is a hard felt hat with a low melon-shaped crown and a rounded brim that turns up at the sides. Known in the United States as a derby hat, the bowler had largely replaced the hard-to-maintain top hat as the headgear of choice for elegant gentlemen in the United States and Europe by the end of the nineteenth century.
The first bowler hat was designed in 1850. Tired of his tall riding hat being yanked off by overhanging tree branches while traveling in his coach, William Coke II, a wealthy British landowner, commissioned the renowned London, England, hatters James and George Lock to design a low-crowned hat. The Locks, who called their creation a Coke hat, sent their design across the Thames River to one of their chief suppliers, William Bowler. Bowler produced a prototype and soon began manufacturing the hat under his own name. The name stuck, perhaps because the hat's bowl-like shape made it easy to remember.
Early bowlers came in gray, brown, or black, with black the most popular color. Brims could also be curled up or straight. First worn for casual occasions, the low-crowned bowler became a popular accompaniment to lounge suits among English men visiting the countryside in the 1860s and a slightly taller-crowned version caught on among tourists in Paris, France. However, the declining popularity of the top hat, which was large and hard to keep clean, resulted in the bowler becoming acceptable as town wear by the turn of the century. The hat shape was eventually adapted for women and children and remained popular with British men until World War II (1939–45). New York governor Alfred E. Smith (1873–1944) helped popularize a brown version of the hat in the United States, where it was called the derby.
Today the bowler hat is widely associated with Great Britain, due to its adoption by several well-known historical and fictional Englishmen. Silent film comedians Charlie Chaplin (1889–1977) and Stan Laurel (1890–1965), and more recently the dashing gentleman spy character, John Steed, of the 1960s television series The Avengers (1961–69), all sported bowlers.
Chenoune, Farid. A History of Men's Fashion. Paris, France: Flammarion, 1993.
Robinson, Fred Miller. The Man in the Bowler Hat: His History and Iconography. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1993.