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When you picture Laurel and Hardy, Charlie Chaplin, a Rene Magritte work of art, the four major characters in Samuel Beckett's "Waiting for Godot", or a well dressed British banker, a bowler hat (also known as a derby) almost certainly comes to mind. The bowler, perhaps like no other hat before or since, stands unambiguously as a symbol for an age, a passage in western civilization.
The bowler hat was created in 1850 for an English game warden, James Coke. It was intended as a riding hat that Mr. Coke could count on for hard hat protection as he rode his steed through his protectorate looking out for poachers. It soon became, as Fred Miller Robinson wrote in The Man in the Bowler Hat: His History and Iconography, " . . . an emblem through the then-incredible changes that industrialism was engendering - but as an emblem of many things, a sign of the times. It became clear to me very early on that I was studying modern life by tracing the meanings of this sign. And more, I was gaining a perspective on modern life that was fair to people's real experience of it."
A look at who was wearing bowler hats, from the mid-19th Century onward, tells a lot about the this style's resonance as a symbol for its time. Again, Professor Robinson, "As more and more bowler-hatted figures turned up in my study, they seemed to express something textured and true about la vie moderne. Gamekeepers, squires, street vendors, omnibus drivers, counter jumpers, bankers, union men, women on horseback and in cabaret acts, detectives and hanging judges, dictators and bums---all of these seemed more important in their relations than in their variety, however elusive those relations and seemingly random that variety." The variety, of course, is significant.
Hats had always denoted rank in society-for example, gentlemen wore top hats (and cocked hats before top hats) while the lower social strata wore cloth caps (picture Dickens' street urchins). Everyman (and woman too if she was so inclined to push the social-fashion envelope) was wearing a bowler. Whether the wearer was making a statement about his liberation, or being glib or ironic, the fact is that both the union man and the banker wore the same hat. Something important was being conveyed through this simple article of headwear. As each of us who has ever put on any hat knows, one cannot place this apparel article on one's head totally unselfconsciously. The bowler hat marked a change, and the "modern man" by wearing one, wanted the world to know that he was part of it.