Bowled Over by William and Harry

William and Harry on parade in their bowlers. Photo: Stefan Rousseau/AP
William and Harry on parade in their bowlers. Photo: Stefan Rousseau/AP

by Ray Setterfield

December 17, 1849 — Gamekeepers whose top hats were constantly being knocked off by low-hanging branches when they were on horseback needed a better form of headgear. They got it on this day when a new style of hat was put to the test at the world's oldest milliner – James Lock & Co of St. James's, London.

The story goes that Lock & Co were commissioned by a customer to produce a sturdy, low-brimmed hat that would overcome the low-hanging branches problem.

There is confusion over the identity of the customer. Some say it was Thomas William Coke (pronounced "Cook"), 2nd Earl of Leicester, who wanted the new hat for gamekeepers at his estate, Holkham Hall in Norfolk.

Others believe it was Edward Coke, younger brother of Thomas. Either way, Lock & Co engaged Thomas and William Bowler, hat-makers in East London, to fulfill the order. The new hat that they produced was taken to Lock & Co's premises on 17 December 1849 and presented to the customer.

There may be some doubt about which Coke it was, but there is no dispute about what happened next: he took the hat, placed it on the floor and stamped on it twice to test its ruggedness. Satisfied, he paid twelve shillings for it.

Originally, the hat was called a coke, after the man who placed the order, but it became commonly known as a bowler, after its makers.

Timothy Long, Curator of Fashion & Decorative Arts at the Museum of London, has written that "throughout the mid-19th century, the bowler hat occupied the status of work-wear for London labourers, until it was adopted by King Edward VII, who made it fashionable.

"Throughout the 20th century, the hat’s popularity grew until it almost entirely lost its association with the working class and became synonymous with civil servants and bankers.

"By the 1980s, however, the hat had fallen out of general fashion and was seen only during the most formal occasions or within specific industries, such as in the work dress of the officers of the Queen’s Guard."

Showbusiness was quick to take the bowler on board. Charlie Chaplin was rarely seen without one, neither were Laurel and Hardy. In more recent times, actor Patrick Macnee made it his trademark icon as John Steed in the long-running television series, The Avengers.

Oddjob wore a lethal version of the bowler in the James Bond film, Goldfinger, while Liza Minnelli (as Sally Bowles in the 1972 musical Cabaret) and Malcolm McDowell (as Alex in Stanley Kubrick's 1971 film A Clockwork Orange) both favoured a bowler.

Now shunned by City gents and the Civil Service, all is not lost for the iconic headgear. Princess Diana's boys, Harry and William, were photographed wearing bowlers when they attended the annual Combined Cavalry Old Comrades' Association Parade in London.

Yes, tradition demands that Cavalry officers such as William and Harry must wear suits, regimental ties and bowler hats when on duty. But then royalty has a way of kicking off fashion trends . . .

Published: November 27, 2017

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