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#34: Bowler vs. Derby

February 7, 2009

A: The difference between a Bowler hat and a Derby hat is simply the following: Bowler hats are British, Derby hats are American. Since we like to keep things American (or at least North American) at Indian Summer Vintage, onward about the Derby.

The Derby was devised sometime around 1850 (OK, as a Bowler) in London during a time when the top hat was the upperclassmens’ go to hat of choice. However, the top hat was impractical and inconvenient for those on horseback as it ceaselessly (and I’m sure embarrassingly) toppled over and was easily damaged. The hat in question was commissioned for the sake of protecting ones head from low hanging branches and, somehow, poachers.

Derby hats were termed “stiff” hats– they were given a coat of shellac in the construction process and therefore never conformed to the shape of the wearers head. Some featured a very short shaft, some rather tall. I’ve never seen one taller than 7″ constructed for practical purposes, while mine clocks in at a healthy 5″. I am not sure what this signifies, but probably some leftover remnants of the upper class’s affinity for tall top hats and general pronouncement of their place in the social strata.
Derby Hat
While very stiff, the hat is lined in a beautiful, soft silk to ensure comfort. This one is marked with an Eatonia label (perhaps another Eaton’s of Toronto joint? The store was first opened in 1869, which easily dates this hat) and based on its condition I would say it is likely c. 1910’s-20’s.
Derby Hat interior

The Derby hat marks a significant milestone in the lifetime of the mens hat. Hats had always denoted ones rank in society. Gentlemen wore top hats, while the lower social class wore soft, cloth caps (think Newsies — for lack of a better example! But hey, I love Newsies— set in 1899). The Derby hat marked the first middle ground between formality and casual wear. Its popularity peaked at the end of the 19th century and was worn by all classes of men– the mark of the modern man– mostly through the teens and 1920’s… and sometimes by the daring lady.

Newsies, set in 1899, featuring the typical cloth caps of the lower classes.

The apparent popularity of the Derby hat featured in this turn of the century photograph of a crowd of men (origin unknown)
Derby derby everywhere

To put it further into historical context, a photograph of President Abe Lincoln during his term (’61-65) in a top hat, next to Ulysses S. Grant in a Derby.

Lincoln and Grant

Here’s an incredible photo of Butch Cassidy and the Wild Bunch from the real wild wild west, taken in 1900:
Butch and the Gang

And the daring lady in the cocked Derby.
Olga in Derby Hat
Though I’ll probably choose to sport a white tee shirt over the riding jacket, for the sake of those around me, and leave my riding stick-thing at home. Promise.

8 Comments leave one →
  1. February 7, 2009 4:24 pm

    t/e —–> Timothy Eaton Co…Mellisa Special

    • indiansummervintage permalink*
      February 7, 2009 9:46 pm

      Actually I got this one from someone totally random, I think named Norma, and for very very cheap. Good for me, right? Always branching out.

  2. February 7, 2009 7:12 pm

    I really think top hats should come back. I’ve got mine ready.

  3. February 26, 2009 1:32 pm

    I actually have a collection of vintage men’s hats – including a few bowlers, top hats, hat boxes, hat brushes, etc – all branded with my surname. My great, great, grandfathers (who moved from the UK) had about 20 stores in Toronto. Damn that hatless trend, I would be running the store today!

    • indiansummervintage permalink*
      February 26, 2009 1:39 pm

      oh my total utter goodness. A good hat is tantamount to a good outfit! You coulda been the king of hats instead of the kind of tees!

      Could probably use me a good top hat…

  4. Zolo permalink
    May 23, 2009 8:51 pm

    Lincoln’s buddy is US Grant, future president.

  5. March 6, 2011 8:08 pm

    Very nice article — great photos. One thing: the fellow next to Lincoln in the derby is Allan Pinkerton, not U.S. Grant.

  6. Carolyn Evans permalink
    October 30, 2011 7:17 pm

    When can I find a derby hat like the one worn by Diana Ross in Mahogany? Thank you.

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