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.

coke_t.jpgThus, 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.

logo.jpgAdding 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.

american_t.jpgI 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.
other_int.jpgSo, 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.

lock_int.jpgI 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! 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

12 thoughts on “Bowler, Coke and Derby

  1. Hi. I’ve googled your article about Coke hats because I too happen to own a fine Lock & Co. model and have been doing some research on same. I purchased mine in 1982 from a friend in London, who had previously bought it from a hawker on the street. Only a week or so earlier, while visiting Paris, I had dreamed of myself in such a hat, and so when I saw this one sitting on a chair in my friend’s digs and found that it fit me perfectly, I just had to have it; luckily, Roger was of the same opinion, and he sold it to me for an amazing £4(!) The label on mine also carries the date 1759, and I’ve emailed the Lock folks asking for an explanation; I’ll let you know if I get any feedback from them. Incidently, I live on Capitol Hill in Seattle, where I can occasionally be seen these days in my nifty Coke hat and black greatcoat. Your article never mentioned whether your own Coke hat fits you. If you’d have any interest in comparing bowlers, I’d be pleased to do so. (I also own other curious headgear.)


  2. I am pleased to announce that Lock & Company has honored me with a detailed reply to the question I had raised about the multiple dates of commercial origin. Here is the text of the answer I received from a certain Patrick Lamb:

    “You are correct; there are two dates for the company, 1676 and 1759. The company was founded in 1676 but it was officially registered in 1759. The family tree starts in 1676 with Robert Davis who founded the company, he left it to his son Charles who had a daughter Mary who married Charles Davis’ partner James Lock, and as women could not inherit property the business came down in the Lock name to this day. Up to 1759 the business was in the name of Robert and then Charles Davis, but then changed to James Lock as there were no male heirs to the Davis name.”

    I am grateful he was able to take time out during the Christmas rush for bowlers and collapsible opera hats to set us straight on this matter.


  3. Dear Mike, Recently I found a grey Coke in a junk shop here in France, with the “Locke” logo inside. It was in vg condition. The only distinguishing mark—on the inside of the leather liner was “E 123”. Locke tells me this has no significance to them, which I find hard to accept, since all London bespoke Tailors and Footwear craftsmen keep meticulous records of each item made-to-measure for their clients. What is possibly particularly significant about this Coke is that it was made for a small head, carries the initial “E”, and was found in France—also, it happens to be grey. To whom might this point? Well, the obvious suspect is The Duke of Windsor, who lived the last 30 years of his life in France, definitely wore a grey coke,and had a very small head. He was, of course King Edward VIII before he abdicated. My theory is as follows: one of his staff in Paris acquired it after the Duke’s death. When he subsequently died many years later, none of his family realised the significance of it, and disposed of it to a house clearing organisation here, who run their own bric-a-brac store– where I found it. There’s a very curious twist to this tale! Also living in this small French town [pop 3000], is a relative by marriage of Freda Dudley Ward, who was the Duke’s Mistress from 1918 to 1934, when she was usurped by the Simpson woman![From your side of the pond, I believe.] I have Emailed Locke’s to ask them to look into the matter further. Meanwhile, if there is anyone out there who can advise me on markings contained in Locke’s headgear, I would be grateful.It’s an extraordinary place to find a Coke, let alone the much less common grey model. I intend to get to the truth behind this discovery. Please e-me, anyone with anything to add to this story .Thanks John Ivens.

  4. My apologies for spelling “lock&co” with an “e”. I can assure everyone that it is a Coke from Lock&Co of 6 StJames,London, with whom I have been in correspondence. John Ivens.

  5. Found your website after searching for bowler hat, very interesting, though I would like to point out that Lock&Co. have always been given a run for their money by Patey Hats of London, who make a very firm bowler and a positively bomb proof coke. They take a great deal of care in the hand fitting of their bowlers which is essential in a hat which needs to be snugly but not tightly fitted to the head. Glad to see that other people are still finding and wearing their bowlers.

  6. A rather OFF remnark, but, as far as I can make it out looking at that photo, this date of 2/11/65 was written using a biro – you could have known that it can’t have been made in 1865, since the biro was invented only well into the 20. century.

  7. Does anyone know if there are any staff records for Bowlers of Southwark? My gg grandfather & g grandfather were both hatters and lived in Southwark after moving from Bristol around 1870. I wonder whether either of them worked for Bowlers or Locks.

    David waters

  8. Not positive but 2/11/65, if written by a Brit might mean 2nd November, 1965. No doubt this is an incredibly important point…

  9. Dear Sirs,
    We are maker of some civil war reproduced items in our country.

    If it is possiable for your to be come a agent of our firm ?.
    We can send you our pictures of leather items.
    Hope to receive your reply with interest.

    Our Mailing address are.
    Saharan M Arif. (PRESIDENT),
    Pakistan Enterprises.
    P.O.BOX.923 Mujahid Road.
    Ph&Fax .00-92-524-587456.
    If you have any new items to reproduced we will make in our factory.
    These kinds of samples are free.

  10. I am a desendent of the Bowler family. I have found your information very interesting. I would like to buy a Lock & Company Bowler hay made by the Bowler family. Is that even a reasonable request? After reading someo nt posted comments
    Any help would be appreciated.
    Steve Shaw

  11. In London 2/11/65 means the 2nd of November 1965, not the 11th February. Unlike the US date convention, the progression from most specific part to least specific is more logical and more efficient for the reader.

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