The iconic bowler hat, quintessentially English, who wears one nowadays? Some overseas tourists might think that office workers in the City of London still parade in them through the streets – and are disappointed to see that they are all gone. You may be lucky to spot one on a doorman in front of a five-star-hotel. But where did these hats come from in the first place?
It's creation has a rather sensible background story. Nobleman Edward Coke (pronounced “cook“), younger brother of the 2nd Earl of Leicester, wanted a superior hat to that of the top hat which kept falling off his gamekeepers' heads on the Holkham Hall estate in Norfolk. Coke wanted a hat that was hardy enough to protect heads from low-hanging branches as well as poacher attacks. On 25th August 1849, he placed an order with Lock & Co, the “world’s oldest hat shop“, established in 1676 and still family-owned today in St James’s Street. A prototype was made by Lock's chief hat maker, Thomas Bowler, which explains the name. After inspecting the hat thoroughly, Edward Coke settled the bill for 12 shillings. To this day the Earl of Leicester continues to purchase the hat, to which his ancestor gave his name, for his gamekeepers after they have completed one year of service.
Soon afterwards British railroad workers in western America wore the wind-resistant hat as did Derby-goers and those wishing to rise through the social ranks. In the 1920's, “the Coke” as it was often called was even chosen as the official headdress for South American women of Aymara and Quechua, thanks to railroad workers taking them to Bolivia.
Today it remains one of Lock's best-selling hats, both for stylish City-wearers and for those who wish to treasure a piece of this story. From being worn by Patrick Macnee in the Avengers and John Cleese in Monty Python to being immortalised in art by Rene Magritte, the Coke is Lock's masterpiece. Not to forget Charlie Chaplin, who sent a hand-written thank you letter to Lock & Co in 1962!