First, take four-and-a-half rabbits . . .: Armed with the latest academic study, Cal McCrystal explores the curious life and times of the bowler hat

IT WOULD not have dawned on James and George Lock in 1850 that their new invention might provide an unusual boost to the Anglo-American 'special relationship' as it faltered in the closing years of the 20th century. Yet that is precisely what the bowler hat seems to be doing.

The bowler, which Americans call a 'derby' because of its popularity with late 19th-century punters at Epsom, is butting into US drawing-room discourse coast-to- coast. Such attention to what had come to be seen as a rather dented emblem has not gone unnoticed on this side of the Atlantic.

Behind a cauldron of molten shellac in his cavernous workshop off Walworth Road in south London, Sid Patey, 74, contemplates without enthusiasm a new book, The Man In The Bowler Hat - His History and Iconography, by a Californian professor of English, and a four-page article on bowlers in the New Yorker last month. Shellac, melted down from millions of tiny platelets produced by an Asian species of insect and used for stiffening bowlers and toppers, has become very expensive, he says. 'We get it from India at pounds 150 for 50lb. It used to be a few coppers before they got their independence.'

Grumpily he stirs the dark-brown liquid. 'We used to live off the Empire. We made hats for the last four (British) kings. What does the Government care when times are hard. (Chris) Patten wouldn't even wear his cocked- hat in Hong Kong]' Disenchanted, he talks hats no more.

In marked contrast, in Stockport they are enthusiastic: 'Look, ours are the best in the world,' exclaims Roger Hulme, manager of Christy's hat factory. He selects a bowler and stands on it. He selects another and sits on it. Both survive his weight. He takes a third and punches the crown with his thumb. The crown dimples slightly, then plops back. 'You can always tell it's a good one if you can make it crack,' he laughs. Down a Dickensian corridor he enters a padded cell.

The brown-paper packages lining the walls bulge with rabbit fur - one of the two raw materials (the other being shellac) for constructing your genuine bowler. He opens one for inspection - and fast arithmetic: three ounces of fur per bowler, four-and-a-half rabbits to make a hat. In this 5lb bag is the collected fur of 102.85 animals. 'Most of it comes from Belgium,' Mr Hulme says. 'They're tame rabbits, bred in cages, safe from myxomatosis.'

The author of The Man In The Bowler Hat (University of North Carolina Press, pounds 18.50.), Professor Fred Miller Robinson, does not dwell on this aspect, revealing only that the felt of a bowler 'is wool and other animal fibres matted together by heat, moisture, and mechanical pressure'. His book traces the bowler's origins and journey through society. 'The bowler,' he writes, 'expresses its history precisely as it floats past it . . . until, in some distant and possibly Utopian/Dystopian future, it becomes a pure design object . . .'

The bowler was designed by the Lock brothers of St James's Street, London, for a Norfolk landlord, William Coke (later Earl of Leicester), who wanted a hat that would protect his gamekeepers as they rode into low woodland branches and poachers' cudgels. The Locks asked the Bowlers, another family of hat- makers, recently moved from Stockport to Southwark, to produce a prototype. Mr Coke came up to London to try it on. It fitted. He trod on it. It resisted. How much? Shall we say, twelve shillings? Done. And so a new fashion was born, and the hatter's lexicon extended.

Locks wanted the new hard hat to be known as a 'coke,' and although the company still calls it that, the word never caught on. At first referred to as 'the iron hat,' 'bowler' (resembling a bowl and made by Bowlers) soon became a simple household word. 'So many semantic rivers flow through the bowler,' intones Professor Robinson.

The hat became popular with the aristocracy, then with the urban middle class (particularly City gents), then with the petit-bourgeoisie (shipyard gaffers and rent collectors). It was worn in Paris cafes (Toulouse-Lautrec), in Hollywood films (Charlie Chaplin), in British music hall (Tom Foy, 'the Yorkshire Lad'), and in the Andes (Aymara Indian women). In parts of Africa, they represent authority as unyielding as that exercised by the colonial bowler brigade of yore.

In Christy's factory, Mr Hulme recalls a recent customer. 'We had a chap in from London who wanted to export a lot of pink bowlers to Nigeria. We don't do pink - it's mostly black, with about 10 per cent brown and 3 per cent grey - but eventually he agreed to accept black ones painted white. So I got some ICI emulsion and had them done - 250 of them, which he shipped to Africa and got between pounds 300 and pounds 400 apiece from tribal chiefs. We also sell the normal black bowler to Nigeria. One (Nigerian businessman) used to come over with pounds 7,000 and ask us for as many hats as it would buy.'

The cheaper Christy bowler retails for about pounds 80; the more expensive, pounds 150. The factory's 220 workers turn out 5,000 a year, 60 per cent of them exported to '56 different countries'. Germany and Japan, the nations which surged from Axis ignominy into post-war economic success, are bowler-mad. 'You know what the Germans are like for uniforms: even their chimneysweeps wear toppers.' And the Japanese? 'They love them. Being a small people, it's a stature thing, I suppose. They think they look really good in bowlers.'

He glances impatiently at his watch, and quickens his pace as I follow him through his wonderland: rooms containing ancient machinery such as 'brim-breakers,' blockers and tippers. In the 'blowing room,' where hot water and vacuum-suction deposits felt on metal cones, Belgian rabbit drifts in the air, clogging the warrens of our mouths, ears and nostrils and clinging to our heads. 'We're running out of stock. We can't make enough of them at the moment,' Mr Hulme says.

Is the bowler, more or less abandoned in Britain in the Sixties, on the brim of revival? Mr Hulme, who has worked at Christy's since he was 14, is unsure. After all, annual output is a far cry from the 50,000 bowlers Stockport produced in its turn-of-century heyday. 'It's a strong possibility it will come back, but it's too early yet to say.'

Optimism is also subdued at Locks of St James, where bowlers are no longer made on the premises (they come from Christy's), but whose customers include American lawyers, Texans evading the Stetson stereotype, New Orleans jazz musicians, and German tourists.

The manager, Ray Parker, shows me a conformateur, a Victorian head-measuring gadget which produces a paper template. There are some famous templates in a display case, among them those of General de Gaulle, Bob Hope, the Duke of Norfolk, the Larrys Hagman and Olivier, Evelyn Waugh, Charlie Chaplin, Cecil Beaton and the Duke of Windsor - a tiny, misshapen scrap. 'All royalty have small heads,' Mr Parker observes.

He turns to commoners. 'A year ago, a customer was walking down the street when a piece of scaffolding fell on his head. It wrecked the hat, but he was unscathed. He immediately came in and bought another. A coke - a bowler - can save your life.'

(Photographs omitted)

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