The bowler hat in the fifties: My grandfather’s blog

Wednesday, January 17th 2024
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When we cleared out my grandparents’ house last year, we discovered an article my grandfather had written about bowler hats in the late 1950s. 

I've written about him before, publishing an interview in 2012 that talked about what it was like to dress during his life. The ‘black alpaca’ jacket that everyone had for the office stays with me (an ancestor of the shirt-jacket?) as does the practice of trailing new shirt collars in the sea to fade them when he was in the Navy (old hands and Old Money clearly have much in common). 

I never knew he had written about menswear though. He published poetry, but I hadn't seen any prose other than the emails we exchanged over the years (which we also found he had printed out and kept). 

The article is basically a blog post. Around the same length, it gives advice for the novice on wearing a bowler hat, spelling out all the social niceties that I can imagine him absorbing as an employee at Barclays Bank after the War. 

Except that having a good deal of self awareness, there is humour lurking behind every sentence. His tongue is firmly in his cheek. 

I hope you enjoy it. And I still have his last bowler hat by the way. Dating from the late 1960s and made by Lock & Co, it sits on the top shelf in my office, gazing benevolently down at me. 

By John Francis (above right)

If you are thinking of buying a bowler hat today, there are one or two things I think you should know. 

You will, of course, be joining an ever increasing number of men who have responded to the blandishments of the hatters, and there is no doubt that you will look all the better for it. But in buying a bowler, do you quite realise what you will be taking on? I mean, you don’t just go into a shop, ask for a bowler hat, put it on and walk out - there is far more to it than that. 

There is, for instance, in some shops a certain amount of phrenological ritual in getting the thing to fit your bumps, the bowler being a hard hat and unlikely to adapt itself automatically to your cranial irregularities. 

But the mere buying is the simplest part of the operation. It is the responsibilities that go with it that get some people down. You see, it isn’t really a case of you getting a hat, but rather of the bowler hat getting you. And it imposes some pretty severe conditions of service. 

How do you propose wearing it, for example? At a jaunty angle, to give that raffish look? Tut, tut. That will never do. The set must be horizontal, the only possibly tilt being a very slight one forward over the forehead. Very slight. 

And what are you going to wear with it? A raincoat won’t do, you know. It will have to be an overcoat, though if you must have something for a rainy day, then you could get by with one of those stiff, military-looking riding mackintoshes. 

But it would be much better to unroll your umbrella - you have got an umbrella, haven’t you? That is an absolute must - otherwise you might as well give up the whole idea altogether. And you’ll have to carry it all the year round, although in very hot weather, some bowlers don’t mind if you leave the brolly at home and simply carry the hat to town. 

Some trilby and homburg wearers, alas, have few qualms about burying their faces into newspapers as they sit in crowded trains. It’s the sort of thing you can get away with in that sort of hat. But not in a bowler. You just cannot let it down by such behaviour, and if yours is a busy railway line, you had better resign yourself to standing more or less permanently. 

And while on that theme, I might mention that while one doesn’t carry one’s suitcase or parcels in a bowler hat, it is OK to carry other people’s. It may not look right, but it would be even worse to be seen averting your eyes from the old lady struggling with her portmanteau. 

Do you buy fish and chips? Not in a bowler hat you don’t. And you won’t be wearing it when you are doing the shopping - remember the rule about parcels? It applies even more to shopping baskets. 

Do you still want one? Well, jolly good luck to you. You will get used to it. My third bowler is starting to get tired of me now, but I shall very cheerfully go along to see if I can get another one to take me on. 

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Hi Simon,
A lovely post and I have to say the style of writing isn’t at all dated, it could have been written yesterday. My mental image was of John Steed who was a character played by Patrick Macnee, in a series called the Avenges in the 60’s (no not the Marvel version!) worth looking up, however he did go for a slightly more rakish tilt of the bowler. As often the case always worth a look to the lessons of our forebears. Thanks again for a real treat.


… and Emma Peel was my first crush…


Mine too.


Great, hilarious article. “Do you buy fish and chips? Not in a bowler hat you don’t.” makes for a great snowclone. It’s fun to think up a list of modern equivalents of “Do you buy X? Not in a Y you don’t”.


My father used to wear brown tweed suit and a Bowler on his racing bike to go to work. His brolly strapped to the crossbar.
Thanks for reminding me.


Brilliant; it’s in your blood Simon. Must feel to you like history repeating itself! Would love to see the black alpaca jacket you talk of.

Prince Florizel of Bohemia

I second that. I’d be very curious to see how it looked like, how it was worn and so on. I always thought that ancestors of overshirts are workwear jackets people wore in factories, donkey jackets or work shirts such as bleue de travaile. Definitely not something people wore in the office. 


I have a feeling that an alpaca jacket is a jacket in a black shiny cotton material possibly unlined and worn as your grandfather said in the back office (Ii.e. away from the eyes of the public) to save one’s proper jacket from excessive wear. I seem to remember that Ian Carmichael’s office manager in school for scoundrels sports an alpaca jacket. Walter Matthau’s manservant Harold in A New Leaf definitely wears one. Matthau’s wardrobe in that film could well merit an article in its own right by the way.

Simon Thomas

There was one old gentleman around Temple and Fleet St in the mid-90s who still wore a bowler. He was regarded as a bit of an eccentric though. From memory he would also be carrying an umbrella. He also rode a bike and so was adorned with bicycle clips which he continued to wear while drinking a bottle of claret at El Vinos.


‘My third bowler is starting to get tired of me now, but I shall very cheerfully go along to see if I can get another one to take me on.’
I love that, the idea that clothes can get tired of their owners. I suspect some of my (too many) overcoats are starting to tire of me now, and a few of my too often worn shirts must positively hate me.

Peter K

Or maybe it’s the clothes that languish in the closet that hate us.


Really nice Simon! Thanks for sharing.

This also reminded me via your original article about your grandfather, as I suppose the January theme of your articles should, how fewer clothes people had even recently and I imagine were not less happy as a result.


I think it would be nice if that way of dressing were to return – everyone looked a lot smarter.


Wow! only 3 suits? When I wore suits every day, I had a minimum of 20. Some were winter weight and a couple were summer weight. I couldn’t imagine wearing the same suit within a 2 week time period. I guess getting dressed was easier if you only have one suit!


My grandfather (who was always extremely well dressed) had two: his number one suit and his number two suit. When the number one got a bit worn, it was relegated to number two and he would buy a new number one and dispose of the old one. This was back in the fifties and sixties.


Thanks to popular audio-visual media bowler hats to me and I suspect a lot of “younger” people outside UK have always been the stereotypical headwear for thugs and brutes. Think Tom & Jerry, Clockwork Orange, Oddjob from 007 etc. There’s now even Disney villain called The Bowler Hat Guy. I think you did your grandfather right by publishing this letter and letting world see how he perceived the hat and himself in contrast to what image the media has conjured.

Peter Bodach-Söderström

A wonderful piece. Thank you for sharing it with us. Your grandfather was a good writer, and I’m sure he was very proud of you.

JJ Katz

Very nice! So interesting to read coeval views.

Lindsay McKee

Probably a suitable fedora hat will be the most extreme headwear for me.
On that point, let’s say that I’m wearing very dark brown, almost black shoes, a dark brown belt, a dark navy suit or navy jacket & grey or charcoal trousers, a smart navy or midnight classic double breasted coat…you get the picture…what then is the correct colour for the fedora hat?

Lindsay McKee

Thanks again


Very much of the time. In the 60’s my grandfather used to ride a Vespa in bowler hat and spats around Holland Park when he was resident there following his appointment to the Admiralty. I still have both, though unfortunately not the Vespa


This was a great read. Fantastic writing.


Truly fantastic. Thanks for sharing.

Andy Poupart

A beautiful piece, Simon. It is beautifully written, too, so much so that I can hear a voice as I read it and, possibly, discern that twinkle in the eye that he must have had.

Mike Flinn

I totally enjoy the way that he writes. It definitely has style and humor. I also thought of John Steed just because of the bowler and umbrella. Thank you for sharing.


Ha ! Nice piece. In the 60s my dad was quite obsessive about bowler hats, being particularly critical of the curve of the brim (or lack thereof). He had quite a humble job in a firm of show-business accountants (David Niven and Billy Butlin being amongst their clients). Nowadays I suppose he’d be graced with the title of Office Manager, or Post -room Supervisor, but back then he was uniformed, being a member of the Corps of Commissionaires. Now, somedays he would change from his uniform to travel home, wearing suit and bowler. When he bought his evening paper at Marble Arch in uniform he would be “mate” to the paper seller, but with bowler on his head, he was referred to as “Sir”…which tells us a lot about the power of clothes, and people’s reaction to them.

Alfred N

and also the power of the class system!


I have a brown bowler which I wear occasionally for shooting or very bad weather. It is extremely effective against rain and I do not carry an umbrella, ever. I had a black bowler but it was a lot to live up to.
I wear a Locks cream Homburg every single day and everywhere, so I am not a hat coward.
It must be said that the leap from the Homburg to bowler is a large one and which very few are brave enough to carry off. The key is for it NOT to be theatrical and for one’s behavior to be such as if one is wearing a “normal” hat, which is not worthy of comment. This requires a great deal of sang froid.


The Homburg sounds wonderful. What makes the bowler hat so water resistant?


What a delightful post and wonderful remembrance of your Grandfather.


It’s easy to forget that from around the Edwardian era until the 1960s the black bowler hat was the de facto uniform for people who worked in the City of London and Whitehall, usually worn with either a dark three piece suit or black lounge (the striped trousers of morning dress with a black suit jacket and waistcoat), accessorised with a briefcase and the umbrella mentioned by your grandfather. Funny how in some ways style has not changed that much since your grandfather wrote that piece (the suit he’s wearing in the picture is not that different from something you could get from a British tailor today) but the bowler hat would look completely anachronistic today.


Hi Simon,
Thanks for this lovely post! Do you now when the Bowler hat did begin to lose its social function and appeal as an accessory? And what might have triggered its demise?
I’m a béret Basque wearer. In today’s France, those I happen to see wearing it are ladies, old and young, old men, and interestingly enough, young Japaneses! I don’t remember when I last saw a young French man wearing one!
Perhaps to avoid the fate of the Bowler hat, béret Basque’s lovers should seriously consider setting up an international club!
John .


Thank you very much for this reply, Simon!    



Nick Michaels

Living in Norfolk, near Holkham Hall, tend to call them a Coke.

The gardeners of long standing at the Hall wear them

Michael Gordon

From their website: “The Coke is a very distinctive style thanks to its domed crown and curled brim. Lock & Co. created the iconic Coke hat (also known as the Bowler hat) in 1849 after being commissioned by Edward Coke to create a hat hardy enough to protect his gamekeepers.”
It originally was a working-man’s hat — on the wharfs in Scotland and in the American west.

Michael Gordon

Prince Philip

john kalell

Delightful recounting of your grandfather’s witty way, Simon. At the same time, he seems quite serious about the proper ceremony of the bowler. We, unfortunately, miss so much these days.

Barry Pullen

Wonderful to find out your men’s fashion writing is inherited! But you didn’t answer the big unspoken question: is your head the same size as his—can you wear it?

And if so—will you?

Tommy Mack

What a lovely article. Full of wit and linguistic flair. I like the notion that the bowler is strictly businesswear so one shouldn’t wear it to the shops or for travelling and should behave with an appropriate degree of formality (no burying your head in your newspaper – the 20th century equivalent to spending the journey staring at your phone!) but of course, you shouldn’t be too priggish to help a fellow passenger with her luggage just because you’re in your bowler!

My grandfather had a bowler and a fedora, both of which my brother and I wore on nights out (the fedora probably suited better, bowler hat on a teenage boy conjures up droogish associations!)

Joseph Putignano

What an excellent description of how to properly wear a bowler. And as important who one needs to be!


Wonderful ! Love his humour. Thank you so much for sharing and how great that you still have his last Bowler

Simon Chambers

What a delightful post your grandfather wrote! The humour and style definitely shine through, making the advice a joy to read.


The next time you’re in Denmark, check out Hornskov hatmaker if you haven’t already. Beautiful work.

Fabio Venhrost

What a lovely article your grandfather wrote about bowlers. The subtle humor in it is just amazing.