The designers James and George Lock invented the bowler hat, first called "iron hat" for Thomas Coke, Earl of Leicester in 1850. They sent their design to the hat makers Thomas and William Bowler who produced that type of hat for Coke. Since then, the bowler hat thanks his name to the hat makers' family name, which coincides with the bowl-shape of the hat. It was used in order to protect the head from low branches during horse riding. Towards the end of the 19th century, its popularity was at its highest. It was made of hard felt and was the midway between the top hat – upper classes' hat – and the soft felt hats – lower middle classes' hat.
The bowler hat became an English cultural identifier and had at first two different meanings. On the one hand, it was associated with professional servants throughout England (a man wearing a bowler was thus assumed to be a butler) and with the working classes who worked as omnibus drivers, fish sellers, etc. On the other hand, it became the business uniform of London’s bank employees, lawyers, government officials, etc. Due to this image of “gentleman headwear”, the bowler hat became an English cultural icon and was adopted by famous British characters such as Charlie Chaplin, comedian in the early 20th century, Captain Peacock of the show "Are You Being Served?", Hercule Poirot, Laurel and Hardy, etc. The bowler hat also inspired the Belgian surrealist painter René Magritte and the English poet ASJ Tessimond, who wrote a poem called "The Man In The Bowler Hat".
In the 1960s however, Englishmen stopped wearing hats as part of their ordinary outfit and, as a result, young English people of the 21st century have never seen the bowler hat as a common trend. It is still worn, however, at some formal public events like the Armistice Day ceremonies. The few people who still wear bowler hats are divided into two groups: those who wear them for a specific job or activity, and generally elderly men, who wear them because they have done so for a long time. A small number of eccentric young people also wear them because high fashion revisits the bowler hat.
In many other countries, such as France and Germany for instance, the bowler hat was also worn, but under a different name, referring to its melon-shape. In the United States, it is known as derby hat. This name was given by an American hatter who sponsored it after noting its general use at the English Derby race.