My best friend and I have matching bowler hats. Sometimes we wear our hats together, sometimes we wear them separately. However, whenever we wear them it’s always certain that someone (most notably of the male sex) will make some form of acknowledgment ranging from a friendly “nice hat!” to grabbing it and trying it on.
Many just think of the bowler as a trendy hipster staple–An easy out for Brooklynites to make themselves seem interesting, fashion victims to make themselves look like individuals, and NYU students to seem intellectual.
However, the bowler hat has a history far more expansive than twenty-first century pseudo-bohemia.
This, my friends, is why we bought matching bowler hats…
Few hats bear the cultural weight and social significance of the bowler hat. Crafted in 1850 as a riding hat, the bowler was designed to be short enough to not get caught on low hanging branches, and sturdy enough to provide head-protection during game hunting sessions. At the time, the top hat was the upper classes’ hat-of-choice, but it could be easily knocked off during sporting events. Thus, the bowler hat was born.
Before industrialization, hats were used as a method of indicating status. The higher the hat, the more elevated the social status of its wearer. It was customary at that time for the gentry to wear top hats, while the working class opted for more practical flat hats. Thus, the bowler posed a unique position in that it was practical enough to be used for work—yet at the same time elegant enough to be favored by the leisure class.
With its sturdy composition, it is little wonder that the bowler quickly became part of many workers’ daily uniform. The hat could protect them from work accidents related to the heavy machinery involved in factory production jobs.
During the time period, the bowler made cameos in numerous artistic and literary works. Its appearance largely served as a totemic symbol of cultural equality, cerebral enlightenment, and a final severance from the neo-feudalistic structure of rural society.
Somehow, the hat became popular among city dwellers, businessmen and bankers as well—becoming the first “democratic” symbol of mainstream fashion, and a prophetic foreshadowing of a turn within the fashion industry. It was the first time individuals of all social classes wore the same trend. We now have contemporary stores today that carry widespread fashion from Haute Couture to Forever 21. We have access to high fashion trends at a wide variety of price points.
However, the bowler not only indicated a change in fashion, but also an ontological shift in our cultural and personal understanding. For the first time, more and more people were adapting to city living. Simultaneously, the concept of “modernity” was forming and significant shifts were occurring within art and music.
…the bowler not only indicated a change in fashion, but also an ontological shift in our cultural and personal understanding.
During the time period, the bowler made cameos in numerous artistic and literary works. Its appearance largely served as a totemic symbol of cultural equality, cerebral enlightenment, and a final severance from the neo-feudalistic structure of rural society. In Samuel Beckett’s largely cerebral play Waiting for Godot, Kundera’s sexual and gender deviant character Sabina’s hat The Unbearable Lightness of Being, and Rene Magritte’s surrealist paintings Son of Man and The Man in a Bowler Hat, the bowler is emblematic of it’s wearer’s enlightened perspective, and existential capacity to define reality.
The bowler is much more than a headpiece or a fashion statement. It is an emblem of modern thought, and our ability to define our own reality and values within an ever-changing society.
Hat Urban Outfitters, Dress Kensie, Shoes Christian Louboutin.