Bowled Over

A man in a bowler hat in 1901, from the collection of the New York Public Library.

There’s an entry on the top hat in Encyclopedia of the Exquisite, but the story of the rise and fall of the bowler, the topper’s successor, is just as compelling. Created in 1850 by commission for William Coke II, Earl of Leicester, so that his gameskeepers could ride without catching their hats in any low branches, the bowler was exceptionally durable. One report notes that Coke, testing it out, threw the prototype to the ground and stamped on it. The bowler, made of shellacked felt, remained undented.

It was cheaper than the topper, less-easily damaged, and thought to be very modern. As one style-watcher put it, the “need for a democratic alternative to the top hat had long been felt by artists and intellectuals.” It quickly became a sporty alternative to the proper top hat. Edward VII, then Prince of Wales, wore a bowler when he was out in the countryside in the 1850s. By the next decade, the hat was acceptable at most informal occasions. And then it became ubiquitous, and a symbol of Victorian propriety.
The trade magazine “Tailor and Cutter,” proclaimed the bowler utterly banal in 1909. “The Bowler hat is an abomination to the individualist,” editors reported.