Hipsters help bowler hat make a comeback
LONDON // It was once the headgear of all sorts of men about town, from London bankers to Winston Churchill, and now, after years in the sartorial wilderness, the bowler hat is making a comeback of a sort.
Austin Reed, the British fashion retailer, will again stock the bowler, or derby, as it is known to Americans, 12 years after the style was dropped when sales dwindled to virtually nothing. The likes of film stars Jude Law and Rachel Bilson, the singer Britney Spears and Fergie of the Black Eyed Peas, all of whom have been out and about sporting bowlers recently, are credited with making the hat the latest "must have" fashion accessory for the young and trendy.
Austin Reed said it was bringing back the hat simply to meet popular demand. "British design is core to our heritage. Men and women are now looking to history for classic, quality design and tailoring," a spokesman for the retailer said. "The bowler hat is a key piece to communicate effortless British style."
Originally designed by Thomas and William Bowler in 1849 to protect gamekeepers from low-hanging branches, the hat became established as the essential headgear for financial types in the City of London, as well as for more desperate characters in US Westerns such as Billy the Kid and Butch Cassidy, at least according to Hollywood.
From the comedic duo Laurel and Hardy to the villain Oddjob in the James Bond films, and from Charlie Chaplin to the character John Steed in The Avengers television show, the bowler stayed in fashion until the 1970s when, thanks to some biting satire in British TV programmes, especially John Cleese in Monty Python's Flying Circus, the bowler came in for popular ridicule.
Virtually overnight, City bankers and civil servants abandoned their bowlers in drove. "It was never taken seriously after John Cleese's Ministry of Silly Walks [skit]" Patrick West, a writer on British cultural trends, observed in The Times last year.
The hat, though, did not entirely disappear. A few traditionalists clung on to them and army officers were still required to wear them while on business, but not in uniform, in London, though this proved a regulation more flouted than observed.
Doormen at posh hotels and messengers in the financial district have also retained them, whether they like it or not. Lock & Co, the London hatter that produced the very first models to the Bowler brothers' design, said it still sells between 4,000 and 5,000 a year "mostly to City workers, ex-military gentlemen and young Americans".
Christopher Monckton, a politician and journalist more properly known as the third Viscount Monckton of Brenchley, had never given up the bowler. He started wearing them as a young reporter in Yorkshire in the early 1970s, when they were still common among businessmen in the wool trade.
"It is intriguing, but not surprising, that what some had sneeringly, but wrongly, regarded as a symbol of upper-class twittery is back, and that I am once again at the cutting edge of fashion," he gloated in yesterday's Daily Mail.