The wearing of hats can be traced as far back as primitive man. Historical evidence has shown that some form of head covering was used for protection against the elements. Throughout early Egyptian, Roman and Greek times, the hat was worn as a mark of rank. It is believed that felt, the most common material used in hat making, was originally discovered by the nomadic tribes of Asia who were known to have used felted sheep's wool for making tents and clothing.
Throughout the centuries both men and women have sported various forms of headdress but it was only in the late 14th and 15th centuries that hats started to be worn. During that period hats for men were considered an important fashion item, unlike women's hats which only became considered a fashion item in the 18th Century.
As hats gradually grew in popularity during the 15th Century, they were made from an increasingly diverse range of materials such as silk, velvet, taffeta, leather, felt and beaver. During this period, hat wearing differed between men and women. With women it tended to be restricted to the upper and middle classes plus countrywomen, whereas with men it represented an essential accessory. During this period too, there was little difference in the style of hats worn by men and women. Many of the masculine styles tended to be adopted by fashionable women and especially those belonging to the middle classes.
Men's hats over the years have tended to make a symbolic statement. The most notable being the formal, stiff top hat representing from the mid 19th Century authority of the bourgeoisie and aristocracy and those who were involved in the professions and trades. Later the soft trilby felt hats symbolised democracy and revolution and were generally associated with intellectuals, artists and country life.
The Coke, more commonly known as the Bowler, was created at James Lock in 1850 for William Coke, a progressive farmer from 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 the famous horse race.
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.
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