Derby hats were rigid head coverings that traditionally were made of woolen felt. They featured slender, rolled brims and rounded, or dome-shaped, tops. Conventional, or traditional, derbies primarily were worn by men. The traditional colors were black, gray, and brown. Derbies usually featured a matching silk ribbon band tied at the side with a flattened bow.
Derby hats were named for Edward Stanley (1752–1834), the twelfth earl of Derby. In 1780 the earl organized a horse race. The race was held on a track in Epson, near London, England. It became an annual event, whose participants were three-year-old horses, and it became known as the Epsom Derby. The term derby came to refer to any important race for three-year-old horses. In the United States similar races, most famously, the Kentucky Derby, were named for the Epsom Derby. The style of hat known as the derby was worn by many stylish Englishmen who attended the Epsom Derby. Americans identified the hats with the races and thus the nickname stuck.
The hat Americans named derby was in fact a bowler hat, a style introduced in England during the 1850s. Bowlers became popular in Great Britain and crossed the Atlantic to the United States during the mid-nineteenth century where they became known as derbies. Primarily they were stylish hats for refined, upper-class, well-dressed gentlemen. In the late nineteenth century derbies began to be worn by men and women for horseback riding and hunting.
Beginning in the 1910s derbies were worn by dapper, or elegant, American men for office and evening wear. By the 1920s they shared popularity with wider brimmed fedora hats as attire for the successful banker or businessman. They entered American popular culture in the 1929 gangster novel Little Caesar, by W. R. Burnett (1899–1982), where a character is described as "the man in the derby hat." At the time derbies were adopted by a number of jazz musicians, actors, gangsters, and even traveling salesmen. Also, two of the famed Brown Derby Restaurants, where movie stars of the 1920s and 1930s gathered, were built in Hollywood and Beverly Hills, California, in 1926 and 1931. The buildings were constructed in the shape of huge derby hats, immortalizing the fashion trend. In the early 1930s derbies found an even broader market, becoming the hats of choice for men of all classes who wanted to wear a hat more stylish than common fedoras or woolen caps. The popularity of derbies lessened in the late 1930s.
Bigelow, Marybelle S. Fashion in History: Apparel in the Western World. Minneapolis, MN: Burgess Publishing, 1970.
Robinson, Fred Miller. The Man in the Bowler Hat: His History and Iconography. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1993.
[ See also Volume 3, Nineteenth Century: Bowler ]