John Wayne got all those cowboys wrong. So did Clint Eastwood, come to that. Most cowboys didn’t wear Stetsons or ten-gallon hats on two-pint heads but generally anything that came to hand. What came to hand for most cowboys in the late 1800s was the bowler hat. It was durable, strong, and didn’t fly off a cowboy’s head when galloping on horseback across the prairie.
That was partly the reason why the bowler was invented. London hatmakers Thomas and William Bowler were asked by a client, Edward Coke, in 1849 to come up with a hat that wouldn’t be easily knocked off or damaged by low-hanging tree branches when worn by riders or gamekeepers. Most people wore top hats when riding which weren’t very practical. The brothers came up with a design of a hard felt hat with a rounded crown and an upturned brim to give shade and keep off the rain. As the story goes, when Coke was presented with his new hat he threw it on the floor and stamped on it several times. As the bowler withstood his fearsome attack, Coke picked it up, dusted it off, and paid twelve shillings for it.
The ‘Wild Bunch’ Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid
From that first sale, the bowler became the hat of choice among the working class. It was quickly exported across the world. It was soon being worn by cowboys, sheriffs, laborers, ditch diggers, snake oil salesmen, and politicians. In America, the bowler or the derby as it was called, became”the hat that won the west,” despite all what John Wayne and those American western movies tell ya.
Few hats have been as popular, or as successful, and even on occasion, as subversive, as the bowler. This old hat is the symbol of everyman. It has far-reaching associations with lowly workers and city traders; with the rogues of the Wild West like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid; the decadence of the Weimar Republic (see Cabaret); the Surrealist movement (the work and dress code of the artist René Magritte); iconic movie stars like Charlie Chaplin and Laurel and Hardy; deadly Bond villains like Oddjob and Nick Nack; the Ministry for Silly Walks and stand-up comics like Jerry Sadowitz; and literature like Waiting for Godot and A Clockwork Orange.
It also has links to more controversial groups like the Orange Order, the group of Protestants who march in their suits and bowler hats every twelfth of July to ironically celebrate a battle the Pope of Rome wanted their hero, William of Orange, to win. In South America, the bowler is now part of the dress of Quechua women after it was first introduced by British workers in the 1800s.
This rich mix of bowler hat wearers led me to collect together a brief gallery of suitably iconic and hopefully interesting pictures. Do feel free to add to with your own bowler hat suggestions below.
Malcolm McDowell as Alex in ‘A Clockwork Orange’
Two of the most famous Bowlers Laurel and Hardy
The Ministry of Silly Walks: John Cleese.
Frank Gorshin as the Riddler in TV’s ‘Batman’
Bond villain Oddjob from ‘Goldfinger’
Scaramanga’s butler Nick Nack from ‘The Man with the Golden Gun’
Diana Rigg from ‘The Avengers’