Under Gordon’s hat

Under Gordon’s hat


For Christmas this year my wife bought me a most unique gift. It was the Bowler hat owned and worn by Gordon Cotton. The hat gets its name from the Bowler brothers who created it in London in 1849. It was the height of fashion in America around the time of the War Between the States. Most Americans call them Derby hats (oddly enough named after an Englishman, Edward Stanley, the 12th Earl of Derby).

Contrary to popular belief, the Derby hat was most popular in the American Wild West but it was not known as the “cowboy” hat. Fellow gourmand Lucius Beebe calls the derby “The Hat That Won the West.”

A fair amount of famous, as well as infamous folks in the wild west wore a Derby. Among them, were Bat Masterson, Black Bart, Billy the Kid and Butch Cassidy.

Bowler-style hats also became the fashion in Bolivia. You can still see them there as a part of their culture. How they ended up as a part of Bolivian culture is a study of capitalist opportunism. In the 1920s, a lot of blokes from England worked building railroads in Bolivia and a shipment of hats arrived that were not properly made for the Englishmen. Enter a man named Domingo Soligno, who saw an opportunity to get some hats for next to nothing. He bought them cheaply and then went on to convince the Aymara and Quechua Indian women that Bowler hats are the height of fashion in Europe for women.

Woman in a Bombin (photo from Creative Commons)

It took and it stuck. To this day, Indigenous Bolivian women wear the hat atop their heads and the way they wear it indicates their availability. If it is on top of the head, the woman is married. If it is tilted to one side, they are available. According to one source, if they place it on the back of their head they are in a relationship, but it’s complicated.

In American popular culture, the Derby is prevalent in iconic costumes from The Little Tramp, Charlie Chaplin to Curly Howard of the Three Stooges. On the more serious end of entertainment, The Avengers and Alec Guinness all don the headwear. In cinema, who can forget the hat sitting on the Droogs in A Clockwork Orange or Liza Minelli in Cabaret?

So, of course, Gordon Cotton has one, just like Bat Masterson, Curly Howard and Billy the Kid.

And now, I have it.

It sits proudly perched up and to the right on a shelf in this 1970’s paneled office with historic accouterments and photos of family members all around. Under it is a “Phrenology Head” made of porcelain and at the base is a picture of one of the most beautiful women in the world and her dog, both in their younger days.

Gordon Cotton’s hat atop a phrenology head and a photo of a beautiful girl and her dog. Photo by David Day

Who knows, maybe if it sits there long enough it might inspire me to write a brief story or two about history. I don’t think I could write them quite like Gordon, but if I did write them, people need to be drawn in and have fun with the story.

I think I’ll do the first one on the history of Bowler hats.

For more information on the Bowler hat, please go here.