Monday, July 2, 2012

FEDORA – the hat of intrigue and danger

You might be surprised about the origin of the fedora hat as well as the hipster icon hat, the trilby.

The fedora is a hat that has remained popular off an on for about a century in all its incarnations.  But did you know that this venerable hat, so associated with 1930s adventure, P.I.s., film noir, and glamour was born from a play?  Victorien Sardu wrote a play for the Victorian superstar Sarah Bernhardt in 1882, called Fedora, which was also the name of the main character.  Sarah Bernhardt wore a hat while playing Fedora on stage and due to this, the hat became very popular and was referred to as a fedora.

Actually, the term fedora covers a variety of hat styles such as the homburg, trilby, and a variety of other hats that have no specific name but similar in style.  The hat may have grown from the mid-Victorian slouch hat, which was popular in the American Civil War.  The slouch hat was rather shapeless but could be formed by the owner.  They were considered an informal hat worn by workers.  But somehow this shapeless hat of the proletariat became stylish and the hat we know and love as the fedora.

Fedoras are one of those hats that are evocative of the 20th century and well ensconced in literature and film of the period.  The aura of danger comes from the association with gangsters, real and fictional and the later film noir genre.  The most famous 20th century film characters wearing fedoras are Indiana Jones and Humphrey Bogart’s many tough guy roles such as Sam Spade, Duke Mantee, and as the bedraggled American adventurer/prospector Dobbs in Treasure of the Sierra Madre.  Good guys wore fedoras like Indy and Dick Tracy, but bad guys did too, like Al Capone and other gangsters.  The fedora didn’t make you good or bad, but by your deeds you were known and unlike film westerns, the color of your had didn’t predict your character’s actions.

The trilby hat also has literary and Victorian roots.  It comes from the book Trilby by George du Maurier published in 1894 and was a runaway best seller.  On a side-note, Bram Stoker may have used the hypnotism hook by of the evil mesmerist, Svengali in Trilby, when he wrote Dracula (1897), which was also a best seller.  Trilbies can be made of many different materials from hand woven wool, to snappy straw, now so trendy among hipsters.  The trilby also has associations with the Tyrolean hat, so popular in southern Germany and Austria. 


Vintage fedoras and trilbies can get quite pricy although you can get lucky sometimes and get one for a good price.  There are a number of hat makers who still make fedoras such as the classic Stetson, and the internet is full of fedoras for sale.  Always try to get the best possible quality and condition, because a good hat can last you a lifetime. 

If you find one you like but want to tweak the shape, you can reshape and reform a hat into a fedora form by using steam, but be careful not to get burned.  I have reshaped a number of hats to a more likeable form using the teakettle steam technique.  It allows you to direct the steam and work the area without wilting the whole hat.
For costuming, a fedora can make a very simple costume pop and a homburg can make a three piece suit look like a high roller.  Make sure you store your hats in a clean, dry area in your house and not in an attic, garage or basement.  Any box can make a hatbox if you don’t have an original one available.  Don’t seal up you hat in a plastic container because of the danger of mold due to condensation inside the box.  Let the hat breath a little and add a mothball or better yet, cedar chips which will keep the insects away from the delicious felt.  Believe it or not, moths are less of a hazard than crickets, who seem to just munch away wildly.  This is true of all felt and wool items, so keep your costumes and gear safe.  A fedora makes a good item for Steampunk, a Call of Cthulhu game or any RPG, as a clue or a prop.

As a companion post, see my post:   A Brief History of Trench Coats
For more adventurer hats, see also:   Pith Helmets, Sun Helmets, and Sola Topees
Slouch hats, more adventurer hats, added 28 April 2013:  Slouch Hats, Bush Hats, Big Game Hunters, andExplorers

The play Fedora  was written for Sarah Bernhardt by Victorien Sardu  is available for free download from Google Books by clicking on the link.

The book Trilby by George du Maurier is available for free download from Project Gutenberg by clicking on the link.

The book Dracula by Bram Stoker is available for free download from Project Gutenberg by clicking on the link.

This was my 100th post since starting the CoastConFan Blog.  I really appreciate the support and interest in this obscure niche blog.  I also appreciate the many bloggers who are so sharing of information and images in their blogs and posts.  I hope to continue blogging for years to come.  Thanks!                 CoastConFan

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UPDATE:  a reader sent in this amusing photo that he thought pretty much summed up the state of hat wearing today.  I must admit I used to wear a vintage (1930s) fedora but had to stop because of the Raiders of the Lost Ark movie that came out in 1981.  I sure hope I didn't look quite that badly.


UPDATE 2:  I just found a scan of that photo mentioned in  the first update --

I'm the guy on the left.


  1. CoastConFan,
    I own four fedoras and three panamas. I have hooks in my closet up high and the hats seem to be O.K. there.
    Thank you for an interesting article. Hope you consider writing one on panama hats which are my favorite, especially for hot weather wear.

    Phin. Sprockett

  2. You might be surprised about the origin of the fedora hat as well as the ...