A Brief Look At Men’s Hats – The Bowler/Derby

Hats have always been fascinating to us here at Lily Absinthe and millinery/hat-making is an artform all its own. In contrast to today, hats were an essential part of men and women’s wardrobes and they helped to shape and define an individual’s appearance and how the presented themselves to the world. In this post and others to follow in the future, we’ll be taking a look at hats as a means to educating and especially in connection with recreating styles from the late 19th Century. With that, let’s begin…


For men, hats were an essential part of their wardrobe, ranging from the purely practical for protecting oneself from the elements to the purely decorative for fancy dress. For the most part, the situation/social function determined what clothing was proper to wear and this in turn also affected hat selection.

For everyday wear from 1870 through 1900, probably the two most popular style was the derby or bowler (frontier regions such as the American West had their own peculiar hat styles and we’ll leave those aside for the moment.).  The terms “derby” and “bowler” have been used interchangeably with bowler predominating in Great Britain and derby in the United States.


Derby, American, Wool, c. 1880; Metropolitan Museum of Art (C.I.49.49.18)

The bowler/derby was characterized by a curved brim and a rounded low crown and was made of stiffened wool felt, reinforced by the addition of shellac to the manufacturing process.  The hat was said to have been invented by a London hatmaker in 1849 as an alternative to the top hat for riding due to the top hat’s tendency to catch branches and get knocked off (although there are some other conflicting stories as to its origins). No matter the case, the bowler/derby’s popularity grew as the 19th Century progressed and was popular with both the working classes as well as the more prosperous middle classes and it was ideal as both practical and semi-formal headwear.

Below are just a few examples:





The bowler/derby was widely worn, even in the West, and it has even been claimed to have been “the hat that won the West.” Below are just a few notables that sported a bowler/derby hat (at least for the camera):


Bat Masterson, 1879


Butch Cassidy


The Wild Bunch

As can be seen from the various pictures above, the bowler/derby was usually worn with the sack suit although it could also be seen with morning suits and even occasionally with a frock coat.  Just to show how ubiquitous this style was, here’s one interpretation that was made in Japan in the 1890s:


Bowler Hat, Japanese, c. 1880 – 1897, constructed of rattan and bamboo with cloth bands; Metropolitan Museum of Art

For those desiring  to recreate men’s styles of the later 19th Century, the bowler/derby hat combined with a sack suit is a very good place to start- it provides an outfit that will work for most sorts of daytime events and even a few evening ones. In fact, we would argue that the sack suit and bowler/derby combination is probably the most versatile style for men, more so that the usual pseudo “gunfighter style” that seems to be prevalent these days.  But that’s just our opinion. 😉

Stay tuned for more posts in the future on men’s hats….