I read the other day that when Mark Rylance, the brilliant British actor who is currently Thomas Cromwell on the PBS series Wolf Hall, ran London’s Globe Theatre, he always wore a hat to let people know when he was functioning as artistic director and not as actor. The hat was a trilby. (I also read, to my surprise, that Rylance grew up and graduated from high school in Milwaukee—but that’s another story.)
A trilby is a small, narrow-brimmed hat with a short, indented crown. It is worn with the brim snapped down in front and turned up in back. In shape it is similar to the Tyrolean hat. It is so named from the character Trilby O’Ferrall, who wore such a hat in the first production of the stage version of George du Maurier’s 1894 novel Trilby.
Similar to a trilby is a fedora, which is also named for a character in a play. The fedora has a wider brim and a taller crown. It got its name from the character of Princess Fédora, who wore such a hat when played by Sarah Bernhardt in Victorien Sardou’s 1882 play Fédora.
Other hat names have mostly non-theatrical sources. The bowler was named for London hatmakers Thomas and William Bowler, who designed it for a client in the 1820s. When it crossed the Atlantic in the 1840s, it was called a derby because it was favored by the Earl of Derby, who regularly wore it to horse races.
The homburg is a formal stiff hat with what is called a “gutter crown” with a single dent running down the middle and a stiff brim. It was named for the German spa Bad Homburg, where King Edward VII procured a hat of this type and then popularized it in England.
The boater is a straw hat with a flat brim, which was fashionable at the beginning of the twentieth century at sailing events. For some reason, it was popular with FBI agents, almost as an unofficial uniform, in the 1910s and 1920s.
The Bard of Buffalo Bayou wears a hat mostly for protection—to try to keep his head safe from the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.
When Rylance is doing his work as director,
He knows he must move in the management sector,
And prove by whatever he puts on his head
That he is the top guy whom all others dread.
A bowler or derby would just be a bummer,
And people might think he was merely a mummer.
A homburg is humbug and makes him look stuffy,
He’d deplore a fedora, it’s so seedy and scruffy.
The reason a boater would never apply
Is that someone might think he was just F.B.I.
Mr. Rylance’s headwear must be only a trilby,
To show that he wants to be boss—and he will be.