Picture Winston Churchill, Charlie Chaplin, or the quintessential English gent on his way to work in the City. What are they wearing on their heads? The chances are you imagined them in that hard felt hat with a rounded crown and narrow brim known as the bowler or, in some circles, the Coke (pronounced “cook”).
The bowler has travelled widely since its beginnings in London in 1849. Appropriated by everyone from cowboys in the American West to Quechua women in Bolivia, who were introduced to the hat by British railway workers in the 1920s, the iconic piece of headwear began with two men called – perhaps unsurprisingly – Edward Coke and Thomas Bowler.
Coke, the younger brother of the 2nd Earl of Leicester, walked into the famous London hat-makers Lock & Co with a problem. The top hats worn by his gamekeepers on the Holkham Hall estate in Norfolk kept falling off but they needed to wear something to protect their heads from low-hanging branches and poacher attacks.
Bowler, Lock’s chief hat-maker, rose to the challenge and put together a prototype. To test the hat’s strength, the story goes that Coke threw it on the floor and jumped up and down on it. The resilient bowler passed with flying colours and Coke paid 12 shillings for it.
The bowler’s combination of practicality and style has made it appeal to a wide range of people throughout its history. Railway workers and American cowboys – think Butch Cassidy or Billy the Kid – adopted it as their own because it would not blow off easily when they were on horseback or hanging their heads from the windows of speeding trains.
Derby-goers also loved the bowler, as did those wishing to rise through the social ranks, and the hat became known as the Derby in the US.
In Britain, the bowler was first worn by the Victorian working classes but by the 1950s and 1960s it came to epitomise the “City gent” – along with a pinstripe suit and a black umbrella. When George Banks, the stern workaholic father in Mary Poppins, is sacked from his job at the bank, his bowler is ceremoniously punched in.
Today, cavalry officers still wear bowler hats and suits for their annual parade in Hyde Park on what is known as Cavalry Sunday in May – both Princes William and Harry have worn them for official purposes. The tradition stems from the fact the outfit was considered correct dress just before the First World War and officers are still expected to wear their City gent attire whenever they are in London on duty.
One of Britain’s most famous hat devotees, Winston Churchill is known to have favoured the Homburg, but he pulled off a bowler with aplomb. To this day, Lock & Co still sell thousands of Cokes each year to City workers and ex-military customers, while the Earl of Leicester continues to buy the hat to which his ancestor gave his name for his gamekeepers on the completion of one year’s service. ■