During the nineteenth century and the first half of the twentieth century, hats and caps were a necessary part of a well-dressed man's daily wardrobe. Between the 1890s and the 1960s, one of the most popular hats was the fedora, a soft felt hat with a brim and tapered crown with a crease down the center. For several decades gangsters, politicians, fashionable bachelors, and conservative family men all wore fedora hats whenever they left home.
The fedora is a descendent of a traditional brimmed hat that was part of the customary costume of the Tyrol, a mountainous region in Austria. The first modern fedora appeared in France, onstage in an 1882 play by Victorien Sardou (1831–1908). The play was called Fedora, which was also the name of the heroine, played by the extremely popular actress Sarah Bernhardt (1844–1923). As Fedora, Bernhardt wore a stylish soft felt hat with a crease in the crown. Bernhardt's many fans were charmed and began to wear the new hat, called a fedora in honor of the star's role. While fedoras were first popularly worn by women in France, Germany, and England, they were soon adopted by men as an alternative to the stiff bowler hats, or derby hats, that were the most common men's hats at the time.
By the 1920s fedoras were everywhere. Though the fedora had at first been a casual hat, during the 1920s England's prince Edward VIII (1894–1972) changed the fashion by wearing a fedora with dressy suits. The hat he wore when he visited the United States in 1924 was copied and mass-produced by Sears Roebuck. Soon most well-dressed American men wore a fedora.
One of the most popular features of the hat was its softness and ability to be shaped by the individual wearer. From the shape of the crown to the "snap" of the brim, each wearer could shape the hat to show his own personality. Gangsters, a member of a criminal gang, and dapper young men might wear the brim turned down so it covered the wearer's eyes, while a more practical working man might turn the brim up to keep rain from running down his collar. Even the crease in the crown could be shaped to an individual's preference. Fedoras were usually brown, black, or gray, though some flamboyant dressers wore them in white, blue, and even lilac.
Although men's styles are usually slow to change, there were some differences in the look of the fedora through the years, mostly in the shape of the crease and the width of the brim. Wider brimmed hats were popular from the 1920s through the mid-1940s and narrower brims from the late 1940s up to the 1960s. By the 1960s hats for men had largely gone out of style as everyday wear, and fedoras began to be seen as relics of a more fashionable past.
Schoeffler, O. E., and William Gale. Esquire's Encyclopedia of 20th Century Men's Fashions. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1973.