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History of Hats

Coke

The Coke, more commonly known as the Bowler, was created at James Lock in 1850 for William Coke, a progressive farmer from Holkham in Norfolk. It was a domed hat, hardened by the application of shellac, devised to protect the heads of gamekeepers from overhanging branches of trees, and closely fitting the head so that it would not easily blow or fall off. The prototype was made by Thomas and William Bowler, hat makers in Southwark. It was brought to St. James’s Street to be tested by William Coke himself. This he did by jumping on it and as it withstood his weight he bought it.

At the shop this masterpiece was naturally identified as a ‘Coke’, but later when it went into production at the rate of sixty thousand a year, it became generally known as a ‘Bowler’, after its maker. In America it became a ‘Derby’ from its association with that famous horse race.

Straw Boater

The origins of today’s boater are the sailor’s hat issued to midshipmen in the Royal Navy near the end of the nineteenth century. They were not as stiff as the modern boater but provided protection from tropical sun.

These hats were adopted by children in Victorian England and became part of their school uniforms wearing their school or house colours as bands.

The boater became a popular form of summer headwear for gentlemen as a lighter and cooler alternative to the bowler. For a while they also became popular with costermongers in the East End of London but today they are a rare sight, as it has been eclipsed by the Panama, and are mainly seen as part of the summer social scene at Henley Royal Regatta.

Trilby

The Trilby is named after the female heroine of a novel of the same name written by George du Maurier. The novel was serialised in Harper’s New Monthly Magazine and was also made into a stage play. Trilby O’Ferral, the beautiful artist’s model who fell under the spell of Svengali, wore the soft indented felt hat in an 1895 dramatisation.

After the turn of the century the Trilby became more popular as men rejected the more formal stiff hats that were the vogue of the previous century. The Trilby was very much an American fashion but quickly spread to the rest of the world helped by the medium of film. Also known as the snap-brim.

Fedora

The name “Fedora” comes from the heroine of French playwright Victorien Sardou’s drama presented in Paris in 1882. The hat soon became popular with men in the same way as the trilby.

Panama

Panama hats are made exclusively in Ecuador and are hand-woven from the Tequilla Palm.

The origins of the hat go back to the 16th century when the Incas were the first to use the Tequilla palm to make hats.

The term Panama comes from the number of workers building the Panama Canal who used the hat for protection against the sun.

In 1855, a Frenchman living in Ecuador took some samples to the World Exhibition in Paris and the finest quality panama was presented to Emperor Napoleon III.

Every Panama hat is unique as the making of the hats is a cottage industry and some of the finest panamas are made in Montecristi. The finest woven hats can take up to 6 months to weave and can command very high prices. The best hats have to be woven in the right conditions and humidity. The weavers split the fibre razor thin and plait ring after ring of palm fibre constantly dipping their finger tips into water.

The finest panamas have a very silky texture and when held up to the light you can see a spiral of rings together with the weaver’s signature. These rings are called ‘vueltas’ and the more there are determines the quality of the hat.

Panamas are exported from Ecuador in the form of hoods. These are then blocked by specialist hat factories into the two principal shapes which is the Trilby and the Folding Panama.

The origin of the black band on the Panama dates back to 1901 when Queen Victoria died.

Top Hats

The top hat was originally a French invention and quickly became the status symbol for the nineteenth century gentleman and replaced the cocked tricorns and bicorns that had been fashionable in the previous century.

The first top hats were made from beaver but a new material appeared called ‘hatter’s plush’ which is the trade’s term for what the public think of as silk. It was very fine silk shag, applied to the felt to give it a nap. The first man who was credited with wearing this new creation in London, the hatter John Hetherington, nearly caused a riot and was arrested for wearing a hat that was ‘calculated to frighten timid people’ (St James’s Gazette).

After this poor start the top hat soon became the conventional headwear for gentleman in Britain, Europe and the United States. It was seen as a symbol of wealth and social standing and able to enhance the wearer by making them seem taller, more refined and handsome.

Back in France a Monsieur Gibus had invented a collapsible top hat known as the chapeau claque. This made storage much easier and could be easily placed under the seat of an opera house which gave the hat the name “opera hat” or the wearer could hold it under his arm giving the hat a third name “chapeau bras” (arm hat).

Today top hats are still worn all over the world at weddings and if you are invited to the Royal Enclosure at the Royal Ascot race meeting gentleman must be wearing either a grey or black top hat.

Hatting Terms

Blocking

The process of shaping from the hood.

Mad as a Hatter

Mad hatters disease was a physical disorder that affected the nervous system and was caused by inhaling toxic fumes from mercury nitrate, a chemical used in the felting process. As well as the damage caused to the lungs the fumes affected the brain which led to paralysis, loss of memory, mental derangement and eventual death.

The symptoms were also recognized in the United States where the condition was known as the ‘Danbury Shakes’ after the town in Connecticut that was the centre of top hat manufacture.

As tragic as this was hat workers did not get much sympathy and victims of the condition were mocked in the nineteenth century and treated as drunkards (although hat workers were notorious for quenching their thirst caused by the dust and fumes of their occupation).

The term ‘Mad as a Hatter’ was made famous by Lewis Carroll in his novel Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland which was published in 1865 a year after the Factory Act of 1864 was passed, which among other things, required proper ventilation in workshops.
In the scene where the Hatter is being tried by the King, the King notices that the Hatter looks uneasy and anxious, and trembles so that he took both his shoes off – “Don’t be nervous”, said the King, “or I’ll have you executed on the spot!” Carroll describes here the symptoms of a sufferer in the first stages of the disease.

Town Coke
Boater
Trilby
Fedora
Panama
Silk Top Hat