What do Charlie Chaplin, Oddjob, and Steed have in common?

Bowler hats!
Charlie ChaplinIn the James Bond movie Goldfinger, the eponymous character had a sidekick who used a razor-edged bowler hat; in one scene he uses it to decapitate a statue. Charlie Chaplin’s character, the Tramp, often wore bowler hats. John Steed, played by Patrick Macnee, a central character in the TV series The Avengers, had a trademark bowler and umbrella. (For more about umbrellas, read this post.)Other bowler-wearing characters in popular culture include Thomson and Thompson, the goofy and inept (but lovable) twin detectives in the Tintin books always wear bowler hats and walking sticks; and Alex DeLarge (played by Malcolm McDowell), the central character in the movie A Clockwork Orange, wears a bowler hat and distinctive eye makeup. And, of course, comedy legends Laurel and Oliver Hardy and Costello wore bowlers.

In the 1840s the London hatters Lock & Co had been commissioned by a customer to design a close-fitting, low-crowned hat to protect his gamekeeper’s heads. The hats of the day, which were top hats, were too easily knocked off by low-slung tree branches; the hats would also – in an ideal world – protect the gamekeepers should they be attacked by poachers. The first such hat was sold on 17 December 1849.

Lock & Co outsourced the hat problem to London hat makers Thomas and William Bowler; they got their solution as well as a name for the headgear that has lasted since then. Lock & Co, who purport to be the world’s oldest hat-making company, were founded in 1676 in St James’s Street, where they remain to this day.

19-century St James’s Street and St James’s Palace

St James’s Street takes its name from an 11th-century asylum dedicated to St James (the patron saint of Spain). According to the London historian’s go-to font of knowledge, John Stow, it was founded “by the citizens of London, before the time of any man’s memory, for fourteen sisters, that were leprous, living chastely and honestly in divine service”.The hospital, as was often the case, fell into the hands of Henry VIII who built a palace there.

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