Bowlers, City Gents, and Stereotypes: History of the Bowler Hat

The history of the bowler hat begins in 1849. At first it was an English gamekeeper’s hat then worked its way into all social classes. After the Second World War, it became the trademark of the City Gentleman and the basis for the British stereotype that’s still recognizable today.

The stereotype of a British man is that of the City Gentleman. He wears a dark suit, sports a bowler hat, and has an umbrella that doubles as a walking stick – and, more than likely, he works in London’s financial district. But the most distinguishing part of the City Gent’s ensemble is his neat and practical little hat which didn’t start out as a city hat at all.

Men in bowlers was a favorite subject for René Magritte, Belgian Surrealist. This is The Masterpiece or The Mysteries of the Horizon (Le Chef-d’Oeuvre ou Les mystères de l’horizon) 1955. Source

History of the Bowler

The humble British bowler’s story begins in 1849 on Lord Coke’s large estate in Norfolk, England. Like most of the noble class, Lord Coke’s favorite pastimes were hunting and fishing. So he employed lots of gamekeepers to take care of his land and to make sure there was always game at the ready for his sporting pleasure. They also had to chase off any poachers who wanted to have Lord Coke’s animals for dinner.

The gamekeepers on such an important estate had to look their best, and that meant they were required to wear top hats – the tall gentlemanly hat of the day. However, those high hats were hard to keep on. Every time a gamekeeper would duck into some underbrush, ride under a low-hanging branch, or even gallop after a poacher, their top hats would topple to the ground and be trampled by their horse. Even after they used cords to secure them to the collar of their coats, they were still getting banged up and damaged. The hats were simply too delicate for the rough life of a gamekeeper.

1852 at Windsor. Prince Albert’s hunters, gamekeepers, and beaters in their tall top hats. Source

A New and Practical Hat

So, one day, when yet another hat had been ruined, Lord Coke decided enough was enough. He made a trip to London and went to Lock & Co. Hatters on St. James’s Street. They had a reputation for making hats to special requirements, so Lord Coke described his ideal gamekeeper’s hat to them: “It should be close fitting and snug so it won’t be knocked off by branches and won’t fly off in the wind. In addition, it should be sturdy so that if a horse steps on it, it will hold its shape. And, lastly, it should protect the gamekeeper’s head from blows, either accidental or by poacher attacks.”

Lock & Co. assured Mr. Coke they would come up with something acceptable. Then they passed the specifications on to their most talented hatmaker, Thomas Bowler, who worked up a prototype. He designed a felt hat with a small brim and a low melon-shaped dome. Then he injected the felt with a special, secret-recipe stiffener which basically turned the hat into a hard helmet.

John Barker, Gamekeeper at Lyme in the new bowler hat for gamekeepers. British School, 19th century. Source

How to Test a New Hat

In December 1849 Mr. Coke came in to see what they had come up with. He took the hat in his hands and turned it all around for a good look. He tapped on it with his knuckles, then he threw it down on the floor and stomped on it. The hat showed no dents, so he stomped on it again even harder. Still, it held its original shape. Mr. Coke was satisfied with the new design and ordered them for all his gamekeepers.

As was the practice with custom-made hats, it was named after the client who ordered it. So this one became the coke hat or the Billycock (Billy Coke). But as it gained popularity, it took the name of its designer, Thomas Bowler, and became the bowler hat.

Future King Edward VII and a carrot seller, both in bowlers. Sources 1Source 2

The Hat for Everyman

The bowler was originally designed for gamekeepers, but soon all types of workmen discovered its practicality. Laborers everywhere needed a hat that wouldn’t get in the way, would stay put, and would protect the head. It was the first hard hat, and it was adopted by shipyard workers, train drivers, street traders, bus drivers, etc. Train drivers are said to have tested their hats by sticking their heads out of a fast-moving train. If the hat didn’t blow off, it was a good fit.

This practical little hat even managed to cross the lines of the British class system. In the 1860s Prince Albert Edward, (Queen Victoria’s son who would become King Edward VII) was seen wearing a bowler. It became an acceptable gentleman’s hat and was especially popular with bankers and civil servants.

Even while these City Gents were wearing bowlers to their banking jobs, the lower-class men were still wearing them to sell their carrots or work on the trains. The bowler was truly a hat for every man.

Charlie Chaplin and George Banks. Source 1Source 2

Decline of the Bowler

After the second World War, lots of things changed, and one of the changes was that lower-class men began to go hatless. This left the City Gents in their bowlers as almost the only hat wearers. The streets of London’s financial district were buzzing with stereotypical City Gents until the 1970s when this fashion began to fade.

Even though bowlers are rarely seen on the streets today, they live on in our memories. Who can forget Charlie Chaplin’s Little Tramp waddling along in his bowler? Chaplin, along with Laurel and Hardy, used the bowler as a prop in their comedy routines. And Mr. Banks from Mary Poppins is the perfect stereotypical City Gent with his suit, bowler, and brolly going off to work at the bank.

Princes in 2007 wearing City Gent attire in a military parade. Source

Not Completely Gone

The bowler, however, hasn’t completely disappeared from modern British life. It’s not a hat that you’ll see very often, but it’s still worn in certain sectors: Bowlers and closed brollies are the uniform for retired cavalrymen to wear when on parade, and female police officers have the option of wearing a bowler. On the Holkham Hall estate, where the idea for the bowler originated, the gamekeepers still proudly sport them. But they must be earned: Only after completing one year of good service is a gamekeeper awarded his own bowler from Lock & Co.

Lock & Co.

The unassuming bowler has had an amazing history sitting atop the heads of British gamekeepers, bankers, kings, and carrot sellers. And it all began at Lock & Co. in London. They’ve been making hats at No. 6 St. James’s Street since 1765 and are still going strong. So, if you’re in London and in the market for a very special hat, you can probably find it there. They sell head coverings of all descriptions – including the very British bowler.

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13 comments

  1. I recall my grandfather wearing a bowler hat to my sister’s wedding in the early 1970s. My mother was most put out as all the other males were wearing top hats and he (my grandfather) was conspicuous – but happily oblivious to any social change.

    The first I read from you was the story of the ‘Onion Johnnies’, which i found both informative and delightful. You have a wonderful style of writing and the illustrations are very well suited. My Compliments.

    1. When I lived in England in the late 70s, bowlers were still ‘de riguer’ for senior city gents and aspiring city gents, but the very precise English dress codes dictated Morning Dress (Top Hat) for a day time wedding. I can understand your mother being most put out by your grandfather wearing a bowler. As a ‘ colonial’ I found these English ‘ society rules’ most amusing.
      Another fascinating piece of research, Margo. Best wishes, Paula

      1. I think one of the perks of being older is being able to ignore the rules and do what you want. 🙂 I think I’m just about there, so maybe I’ll start wearing a bowler. 😉

    2. I think your grandfather must have looked quite dashing in his bowler. 🙂 It’s a shame people don’t wear hats so much anymore.
      Thanks so much for your compliments and glad you liked the Onion Johnnies story too.
      All the best – Margo

  2. Love the story and pic of you with your mustache, glasses, cane and hat! You’re cute!

  3. My father was a civil servant in Surrey but whenever he went to London to the Ministry he would wear his bowler hat. I can also tell you that in his obligatory briefcase was a clean, white detachable shirt collar for half through the grime laden city day and a sandwich for his lunch !! Happy Days ! Not to forget Odd Job, whose signature weapon was a razor-edged bowler hat, which he could throw with deadly accuracy!!

    1. How nice to have those memories of your father. It all seems so proper to us now.
      Thanks for mentioning Odd Job. Since I’m not a James Bond fan (shhh… don’t tell anyone) I didn’t know about this villain with a weaponized bowler.

    1. Thank you so much for the kind words. The photo of me in a bowler is photoshopped, of course, but I think I would really like to have one. 🙂

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