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What is a Bowler Hat?

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  • Written By: Niki Foster
  • Edited By: O. Wallace
  • Last Modified Date: 07 July 2014
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A bowler hat is made of hard felt and characterized by a rounded crown and a slightly upturned brim. It is typically worn by men and often associated with England, where it originated. The hat was created in 1850, designed specifically for Thomas Coke, 2nd Earl of Leicester.

The bowler hat gets its name from the first hatmakers to produce it, Thomas and William Bowler, though they worked from the designs of hatters James and George Lock. Originally called the iron hat, the bowler was hard to protect the head of a horseback rider from tree branches - perfect for game warden Thomas Coke. As an intermediate between the aristocratic top hat and the soft hats worn by men of the lower middle class, the bowler acted as somewhat of a social leveler and steadily gained in popularity throughout the 19th century.

In the early 20th century, the bowler hat came to be identified with certain groups. In London, it signified a businessman, such as a lawyer or government official, while in the rest of England, the bowler was typically worn by valets and butlers. Nowadays, though this hat is still considered quintessentially English by many people outside of the country, it is almost never worn in England, except sometimes on formal occasions.

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In America, the bowler hat became known as the derby and was commonly worn by former members of the working class. The derby also became the trademark of certain cultural icons, including Charlie Chaplin and comedy duo Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy. The Brown Derby, a popular restaurant in the Mid-Wilshire area of Los Angeles open from 1926 to 1985, was fashioned in the shape of a gigantic bowler hat. The bowler hat also features prominently in the work of Belgian painter Rene Magritte. Though this hat is most often worn by men in most cultures, indigenous women in Bolivia have adopted the hat as part of their national costume.

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