Last weekend, Viv and I were wandering about Capitol Hill, and stepped into the Red Light on Broadway, purveyors of fine vintage threads to our urban hipster nabe. Red Light is an odd store – there are at least two locations, and they generally have very high quality stock, sometimes of surprising vintage.
I once found a beautiful men’s suit there with tailoring details such as inset ivory or bone cuff stays in the sleeves. These stays are like little spurs that face the wearer’s wrist, and which would allow the wearer to fasten separate hard linen, celluloid, or whatnot cuffs directly to the inside of the suitcoat. This would obviate the necessity of a long-sleeved formal shirt, saving time and money and making the wearer a modicum cooler, I assume.
Separate cuffs and collars for shirts were introduced in order to increase the amount of time a man could wear a shirt before having it laundered; instead of changing the shirt, one changed the cuffs. Imagine, if you will, acting in the capacity of an accountant in the 1800’s; you’d probably drag your cuffs through a great deal of ink, and the detachable cuff would be a great convenience.
The suit itself was in imacculate condition except for the waistcoat, whch had been torn, recently it appeared, along one shoulder. Despite this problem I would have bought the suit; but it had been made for someone about six and a half feet tall. So I left it. I’d guess that the suit dated from the 1840’s to the 1850’s.
So the Red Light can sometimes yield treasures, yet it seems to undervalue them (I suspect the torn vest happened in the store, and the suit hung, unsold, for nearly a year); at the same time it’s not unusual for something I can’t stand (seventies shimmery image-print nylon disco shirts, for example) to be hugely overpriced. Who knows.
Thus, when Viv walked up to me holding a round-crowned hat (right), I was quite prepared to give it my attention. At $25, it was priced just as hundreds of other similar derbies or bowlers are priced on ebay and in thrift stores. However, even a brief look at the hat made it clear to me that it was very well made, with only slight wear to the right interior of the brim, and a sprung bit of some plant-stalk material at the base of the brim where it meest the crown of the hat. The interior was fully lined with very high quality material, and the interior hatband was made of very thick, very soft leather.
Adding to my interest was the old-fashioned logo stamped on the lining (closeup at right), which read “Lock & Co, Hatters, St. James’s Street, London – Established 1759”. So I bought the hat.
I have had a turn-of-the century American bowler or derby for some time (right – note its’ straight sides as compared to the slightly tapered sides seen above; interior view below; it’s unlined), and in terms of quality of manufacture, this Lock-made hat far surpassed it. It was also in excellent shape, and so I resolved to find out as much as I could about the hat, and indeed, about derbies and bowlers in general.
So, first, what’s the difference between a bowler and a derby?
Well, as far as I can tell, in 1888, an Earl of Derby (probably the 15th, although this source says it was the 12th, since the 14th lived from 1799-1869, it’s unlikely that it was the 12th) visited the United States wearing the style we now call a derby, in blind recollection of his visit.
However, in Britain, the same style of hat is known by two names: the bowler, which of course we yanks know of, and the Coke hat, which we ignorant colonials have never heard of.
I stood in ignorant solidarity with many of my readers on this matter until I began to investigate that intriguing logo in this newly-acquired derby or bowler. Turning to my highly-paid and wildly efficient team of information research scientists, I beseeched them to toil day and night until information concerning the logo was discovered.
I hadn’t long to wait, and within moments was looking at this site featuring the exact same logo I had noted in the hat I now own. Indeed, there’s a tiny icon of a bowler on the main page! But the category – “Top Hats and Coke Hats” mystified me. Clicking through, I noted the same hat I held in my hands, available for a mere 189 British Pounds! XE.com reports that as of this writing that’s a stunning $289 USD.
Woof! Well, Lock & Co. must cater to some wealthy folks, I guess. In fact, they are holders of the right to make hats for everyone’s favorite dysfunctional family, the Windsors, and have apparently been the place to go for reputable headwear since, um, 1676. I have yet to turn up an explanation concerning the discrepancy bewteen this date and the one stamped upon my hat. And alas! No note concerning the peculiar terminology employed by the hat merchants was to be found.
A bit more digging yeilded this citation of a book, “The Man in the Bowler Hat: His History and Iconography” (entertainingly, an acquaintance of mine who works for the publisher may have designed the cover):
The first bowler hat was designed by the hatters James and George Lock of St. James Street in London in 1850 for their client William Coke II, later the Earl of Leicester.
“The Locks sent their design across the Thames to the hatmakers THomas and William Bowler, who had a factory in Southwark and were Lock’s chief suppliers. William Bowler produced the prototype, which bears his family’s conveneiently descriptive name to this day, although Lock’s has always insisted on calling it a ‘Coke’ hat. ‘On the south side of the river, the thing was naturally called a Bowler, because Mr. Bowler had made it. In St James’s Street it was equally naturally called a Coke, since Mr Coke had bespoken it.’ No doubt the commercial rather than the aristocratic appellation won out because of the hat’s bowl shape.
And so it became clear to me that this bowler was not only a coke hat as well, it was in essence, the bowler. I began to seriously investigate the hat for clues as to its’ age; the lack of synthetics at first made me think it was possibly pre-WW1; when I turned the interior hat band and found the date “2/11/65” for a moment I had hopes that it was from 1865. Hoever, looking more closely I found a paper label under the lining near the date inscription which was typeset in a condensed Futura font. that font was designed in the 1930’s, and therefore the hat must have been made or sold on or about February 11, 1965.
In considering the hat’s overall excellent condition when compared to the significantly older companion hat, it became very clear to me that the hat must be from the 1960’s. At any rate, I was very pleased by the opportunity to learn remarkable things concerning its heritage. Larger versions of many of the photos seen here are available at pix.whybark.com/gallery/bowlers.