The History and Style of the Bowler Hat: What is a Bowler Hat?

what is the bowler hat

The bowler hat, a versatile and iconic headwear, has stood the test of time, leaving an indelible mark on fashion and culture. With its unique shape and storied history, this hat has continued to intrigue and inspire individuals worldwide. But what is a bowler hat exactly? In this blog post, we will delve into the history, style, and cultural significance of this fascinating hat.

Key Takeaways

  • The bowler hat, also known as “Coke”, “Billy Coke” and “derby hat”, is a timeless round headwear characterized by its open bowl-shaped crown.
  • The bowler has become an iconic symbol of style embraced by people from all social classes and geographic regions.
  • This article provides modern interpretations for styling the classic bowler with tailored suits or casual looks, along with tips on choosing the right one for your face shape and how to care for it.

Defining the Bowler Hat

The bowler hat, also known as the derby or Coke hat, is a round, stiff hat with a curved brim and a tight d’Orsay curl or pencil roll, typically made from fur felt. What sets a bowler hat apart is its round, open, bowl-shaped crown, delivering a unique experience when worn. Most contemporary bowler hats are constructed of polyester blends or 100% polyester felts, which contribute to the bowler hat style. These stylish hats are manufactured by steaming and pulling felt sheets or hoods over a pre-made bowler hat-shaped mold, which is then heated and pressed into shape.

defining the bowler hat

When selecting a bowler hat, it is advisable to avoid brightly colored bowler hats, as they were designed with practicality in mind by Thomas Bowler and were traditionally worn in formal colors, such as black, gray, and brown. Adhering to this guidance helps preserve the classic, elegant allure of the bowler hat that has enchanted the world.

The Origins of the Bowler Hat

history of the bowler hat

The bowler hat was crafted in 1849 by a man named Edward Coke, who requested it from Lock & Co. as a form of durable, protective headgear, to be close-fitting and with a low, rounded crown. The innovative hat was designed with gamekeepers of Holkham Hall, Norfolk, in mind. It was meant to keep their heads safe as they rode horses and carts, protecting them from any trees with branches that may be too low or thorny. Prior to the creation of the bowler hat, gamekeepers wore top hats with high, square crowns, which were prone to being knocked off and damaged when they encountered the ground.

Realizing that top hats were too tall and cylindrical, making them susceptible to being knocked off by wind or tree branches, Thomas Coke commissioned the first bowler hat from Lock & Co. Hatters in London for the purpose of protecting his gamekeepers while they traversed his estate. Unbeknownst to him, his innovative creation was destined to become a cornerstone in fashion and culture.

Different Names, Same Hat: Bowler, Derby, and Coke

Origins of the bowler hat

Over time, the bowler hat has been known by various names, including:

  • “Coke hat”
  • “Billy Coke”
  • “bowler hat”
  • “derby hat”

The term “Coke” hat and “Billy Coke” originated in the late 19th century when the hat was popularized by Edward Coke, the younger brother of the 2nd Earl of Leicester. The alternative name “derby hat” emerged in the United States, where the hat was introduced to American race fans primarily in the derby setting, thus leading to the adoption of the term “derby hats”.

Despite the varying names, the essence of the hat remains the same: a round, stiff, and stylish headwear that has captured the hearts of many. Irrespective of its name – be it a bowler, derby, or Coke hat, the enduring charm and legacy of this iconic headpiece are undeniable, making it the most popular hat style.

The Rise of Bowler Hat Popularity

Ride of the bowler hat in popularity

The bowler hat enjoyed popularity among the working class, including civil servants, in Britain until the close of the 19th century. The hat’s practicality and durability rendered it an ideal choice for everyday wear. Meanwhile, in the American West, the bowler hat was the most favored style of hat amongst both lawmen and outlaws in the Wild West. The bowler hat’s popularity continued to grow in the early 20th century, transitioning from being worn primarily by working-class men in Britain to being accepted by a wider range of individuals, including the upper class and businessmen.

Originating as a protective headgear for gamekeepers, the bowler hat has surpassed social and geographic boundaries, evolving into an iconic and fashionable accessory. Its unique shape, practicality, and versatility have made it a popular choice for people from all walks of life.

The Bowler Hat in Entertainment and Culture

the bowler hats impact

The bowler hat has left its mark on various forms of entertainment and culture, becoming an emblem of style and identity for many iconic figures. Some examples include:

  • Charlie Chaplin, who popularized the bowler hat and incorporated it into his signature Little Tramp character in the 1910s.
  • Laurel & Hardy, a famous comic duo, who also made use of the bowler hat in their acts.
  • Abbott & Costello, another popular comedy duo, who incorporated the bowler hat into their performances.

The bowler hat’s cultural impact extends beyond the stage and screen. It has been featured in various forms of entertainment and culture, such as:

  • Winston Churchill
  • Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid
  • René Magritte
  • Bill Nighy

It is also associated with British culture and fashion. Interestingly, the bowler hat has also become a part of traditional attire for Bolivian women, demonstrating the hat’s wide-reaching influence on global fashion.

With its unique shape and timeless style, the bowler hat has transcended its origins as practical headgear to become a symbol of creativity, individuality, and cultural expression. Be it adorned by comedians, politicians, or everyday individuals, the bowler hat persists as a beloved and enduring symbol in fashion and entertainment.

Modern Interpretations and Styling Tips

Although the bowler hat may not be as prevalent in modern fashion as it once was, its legacy lives on through contemporary interpretations and styling. From classic looks with business suits to casual styles for everyday wear, wearing bowler hats continues to inspire and enchant.

In the following subsections, we will explore various styling tips and ideas for incorporating this popular hat style into your wardrobe, which many fashion icons frequently wore, including those that were previously worn.

Classic Looks

For a timeless and sophisticated look, pair a bowler hat with a business suit, lounge suit, or stroller suit. When wearing the hat, place it horizontally across the top of your head, with the front of the brim facing upward. You can also slightly tilt the hat to either side for added flair. The bow on the outside of the hat should be on the left side, while the smaller bow on the inside sweatband is situated at the back.

Whether you’re attending a formal event or simply seeking a classic and elegant aesthetic, pairing a bowler hat with a tailored suit creates a look that exudes confidence and style. The timeless charm of the bowler hat ensures that it remains a fashionable choice for those seeking a touch of vintage-inspired sophistication.

Casual Looks

The bowler hat can also be effortlessly incorporated into casual outfits for everyday wear. For a stylish and contemporary look, consider pairing the bowler hat with jeans and a t-shirt or a button-down shirt and khakis. In the winter, a dark wool coat worn with a bowler hat can create a fashionable and cozy ensemble.

By experimenting with various outfits and styles, the bowler hat can be transformed from a formal accessory to a versatile and modern statement piece. Whether you’re dressing up for a night out or keeping it casual for a day at the park, the bowler hat adds a touch of timeless charm to any ensemble.

Choosing the Right Style for Your Face Shape

Choosing a bowler hat style that complements your face shape is key to attaining a flattering and stylish appearance. To determine your face shape, examine your reflection in the mirror and take note of the contours of your face. When choosing a bowler hat, consider factors such as the hat’s size, brim width, and crown height.

For those with a round face shape, it is advisable to avoid bowler hats with round crowns and narrow brims, and instead opt for angular styles with a low crown. Investing time to find the perfect bowler hat style for your face shape guarantees a flattering and fashionable look that sets you apart from the crowd.

Caring for Your Bowler Hat

Proper care and maintenance are key to preserving the longevity and appearance of your bowler hat. Before wearing the hat, be sure to brush off any dust and moisture that may have accumulated. This will help preserve the hat’s shape and ensure that it remains in pristine condition.

When storing your bowler hat, choose a cool, dry place to prevent any damage or deterioration. If necessary, seek professional cleaning and maintenance to ensure that your cherished hat remains in top condition for years to come.


In conclusion, the bowler hat is a timeless and versatile accessory that has played a significant role in fashion and culture throughout history. From its origins as protective headgear for gamekeepers to its iconic presence in entertainment and global fashion trends, the bowler hat remains a beloved and enduring symbol of style and individuality. With a variety of styling options and a rich history behind it, the bowler hat continues to captivate and inspire fashion enthusiasts around the world.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is the point of a bowler hat?

The bowler hat was designed in 1849 for gamekeepers to protect their heads while horseback-riding. It has a hard, close-fitting and rounded crown which shields the head from low-hanging branches or other occupational hazards. Cowboys and railroad workers also favored the hat due to its ability to stay on in strong winds.

What is the difference between a derby and a bowler hat?

There is no difference between a Derby and a Bowler hat, as they are simply different names for the same hat design.

Who would wear a bowler hat?

The Bowler Hat became popular amongst both the working and middle classes as a symbol of reliability and practicality, and was worn by a range of people including politicians, businessmen and bankers.

Why did people stop wearing bowler hats?

As dress became less formal and people began to opt for more individualized hairstyles, the bowler hat lost its significance as a class signifier and it slowly faded out of fashion.

What is the main characteristic of a bowler hat?

A bowler hat is characterized by its round, bowl-shaped crown and open design.