Bowled over by the history of a hat beloved by Orangemen
It's the time of year when the bowler hat makes its annual appearance at Orange demonstrations. But did you know that, in South America, it's a symbol of fertility Don Anderson investigates
If you were to ask the proverbial man in the street in this part of the world to speak about the bowler hat, it's likely he would mention the shipyard and the loyal orders. Along with a pair of white gloves and a sash, the bowler hat has been part of the traditional clothing worn by loyal parading order members (it is much in evidence in a new photographic exhibition at the Red Barn Gallery in Belfast).
The bowler was probably originally regarded as epitomising the British gentleman and also as a symbol of authority worn by the foreman on building sites, or in Belfast shipyards. However, the bowler was designed originally as protective headgear.
Before the introduction of the bowler, hats denoted social class. Toffs wore top hats and the working classes the flat woollen cap.
The revolutionary bowler defied convention by becoming a hat that anyone could wear precisely because it was designed initially as a working hat.
The first bowler hat was originally created for Edward Coke, the younger brother of the 2nd Earl of Leicester, in 1849. Most definitely a toff.
It is said that, before accepting the hat at the shop, he stamped on the crown twice to check its protective qualities. Thus satisfied, he then paid 12 shillings (60p) for it, which was a lot of money then.
The design was an immediate success. Tough and hard-wearing because of its shellac resin-treated crown, it was suitable in a very wide range of occupations – street traders, omnibus and hackney cab drivers, fish sellers, shipyard workers (it was an early hard hat), builders, salesmen alongside office, insurance and bank workers.
The bowler went on to be associated with businessmen in the City of London as part of their dress code, but the practice died out during the 1970s.
What contributed to the demise of the bowler? The iconic TV comedy show Monty Python, in which John Cleese used the bowler in sketches such as his Ministry of Silly Walks, did nothing for the bowler's image within its home city.
Beyond London, the bowler had several other lives. It has been largely forgotten, not least because of Hollywood westerns with their host of historical inaccuracies, that the bowler, rather than a cowboy hat or a stetson, was the most popular hat worn by men in America in the 19th century – and that included disreputables like Billy the Kid, Butch Cassidy, Bat Masterson and Black Bart.
Lawmen and baddies alike wore bowlers, most likely because the bowler would stay on your head while bobbing on top of a prancing animal. That was also the reason why American railroad workers liked the bowler, known in the US as the Derby; they stayed on your head in the slipstream.
In Hollywood comedy, Lou Costello along with Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy were well-known for their bowler hats. They used them as accessories, twizzling the rim, doffing them and adjusting the angle on their heads to denote mood. They frequently put their fists through the crowns for a laugh (it won't work unless you weaken them first).
In the silent films Charlie Chaplin's character The Tramp always wore a bowler. Some notable film baddies used the bowler.
Who could forget the evil henchman Oddjob in the James Bond film Goldfinger who wielded a bowler as a lethal weapon? One of Batman's best-known villains, The Riddler, and the evil lead character Alex DeLarge in Stanley Kubrick's film A Clockwork Orange wore signature bowlers. In truth, none of this would have terminally damaged the bowler's popularity. The wearing of any hat began declining in the 1960s. Central heating was being installed in new homes and in workplaces and hats became less necessary to maintain body heat. This coincided with a rapid growth in private car ownership and a car is a very big hat.
Just as important were mass-media influences, particularly in music, film and latterly television. Celebs and film stars stopped wearing hats. To portray an old-fashioned character, a hat did the job nicely.
In short, traditional hats fell out of fashion to be replaced by baseball caps, beanie hats, skull caps, hoodies and cheap umbrellas. Flat caps have recovered somewhat because they can be folded and pocketed.
Hats became a utility for men and a fashion item for women especially for weddings and certain race meetings (for which men now need to go to the hat hire shop). Women largely stopped wearing hats in church, one of the last bastions of regular female hats.
The departed Bradford and Bingley Building Society took the bowler as its trademark. In 1995 it bought a bowler worn by Stan Laurel for £2,000. During the banking crisis it was partly nationalised and the Spanish bank Santander took some of the business, inheriting the bowler. It promptly ditched it.
For the Spanish the bowler would have had different associations. The bowler hat is a traditional part of womenswear among the Quechua and Aymara peoples of Bolivia, among whom it has been a fertility symbol ever since British railway workers introduced it in the 1920s.
Spain has strong links with South America. But, more to the point, the Spaniards wanted a modern image and a break with that past. Bowler hats were a reminder of the time when bowler-topped Captain Mainwaring was a bank manager.
The odd thing is that, if the superficially dinosaurian Captain Mainwarings and their old-fashioned traditions had remained dominant, many big financial institutions would have survived with undamaged reputations. In days gone by, the bowler stood for integrity.
- Don Anderson is a writer and broadcaster. 'The Orange' exhibition by Frankie Quinn runs until July 26 (closed July 10-20) at the Red Barn Gallery, Rosemary Street, Belfast rbgbelfast.blogspot.co.uk