What is a Derby Hat?

Sheri Cyprus

A derby hat is also known as a bowler hat. It’s a rounded, hard-topped hat with a small brim. Black is the classic color of a derby hat and the hat may have a matching band around its crown, or middle. Wool felt is the classic fabric used to make derby hats.

Top hats come in a variety of styles, such as the coachman, derby or bowler.
Top hats come in a variety of styles, such as the coachman, derby or bowler.

Sheep's wool is usually the only wool used to make wool felt derby hats, as it gives a nice, hard strength to the hat. Rabbit fur felt and beaver felt are used when softer hats are wanted and are not usually used to make the derby hat style.

The derby hat was originated in 1850. It was invented for British game warden, James Coke as he wanted a sturdy hat to wear while he was on horseback looking for poachers on his property. Soon, all types of men were wearing derbies, or bowlers, from bankers to bus drivers. Men of every social and economic class wore derby hats and the derby is noted as being the first hat that was mass produced to be affordable for all men.

The derby hat was one of the most popular men's hats for close to seventy years. Men began wearing derby hats rather than top hats in the 1850s and then began wearing fedora hats rather than derby hats in the 1920s. However, comedy stars Laurel and Hardy each wore a derby hat throughout the 1920s and 1930s in their movies and it was their signature style. Even stores selling hats today have names for their derbies such as the Laurel and Hardy Bowler and the Laurel and Hardy Derby Hat. One Laurel and Hardy skit, the 1927 includes a gag that involves mixed up derby hats.

Silent film star Charlie Chaplin also wore a signature derby hat. Some women also wore derby hats even though originally they were sold as men's hats. Women who performed in the circus or in cabarets were known to wear derby hats and later the derby hat, called a bowler hat was sold as a woman's hat. The women's derby hat was often sold with the bowler handbag, which is a large, simple handbag with handles at the top that looks like it could easily hold a bowling ball.

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