The gender-bending superstar and hustling hatter who invented the fedora

Sarah Bernhardt

The fedora’s the symbolic hat of the 1920s, but it took 40 years to get there. Thanks to a superstar actress (who liked to break the rules) and a hatter (who knew how to manipulate trends), the fedora became iconic. It got there in the most unusual way possible.

A superstar actress who could grab headlines

Just like today, fashion trends in the 1880s could start if a celebrity wore the right thing. And Sarah Bernhardt was the most famous actress in the world.

A French actress who moved between stage and, eventually, screen, she commanded media attention with every move. Though her personal life drew headlines (she was rumored to have both teased Nikola Tesla and slept in a coffin), she was primarily known for her work.

That was because her acting was groundbreaking, especially for the late 1800s. In 1899, she played Hamlet, and in 1910 she took on the role of Judas in a play that was already controversial enough. Bernhardt was eclectic, incredibly talented, and unique. That’s why it makes sense we remember an 1882 play she starred in. The play was called Fédora.

Sarah Bernhard in FedoraThe play that gave the fedora its name

Victorien Sardou was an influential playwright for many reasons, but Fédora has had the most impact.

The play itself doesn’t have anything to do with hats. It’s a Russian tragedy about a woman who avenges her lover’s death (later, it was adapted into an opera of the same name). The thing that made Fédora stand out was Sarah Bernhardt’s performance.

In 1882, the play premiered with Bernhardt in the title role. Supposedly, she emerged wearing a soft hat with a crease in the center. The style took off and the hat we know kept the name of the play (it’s not clear if the above picture shows the first Fedora or a different hat Bernhardt wore).

But there’s more to the story of a famous hat than an instant trend. Though Fédora played in the United States as early as 1884, Bernhardt herself didn’t tour in America again until the late 1880s. By then, the Fedora was already an established men’s hat.

Somebody had to make a French hat worn by a woman into a menswear staple. That somebody was a hatter named Edward Knox.

Knox Hats Debuts The FedoraA hatter makes the fedora “the hat of the season”

Charles Knox founded the Knox Hat Company in 1838, and his son Edward took it over after the Civil War. Edward built the Knox Hat Company into one of the biggest in the country (as evidenced by its influence on national markets and giant, landmark hat factory). Knox Hats had become a leader in the market and a trendsetter. That meant that when Edward Knox debuted a new hat in 1883, the public listened. That hat was called the Fedora.

The Fedora had actually appeared in America before. In August of 1883, a Sacramento department store included the fedora in their millinery department—for women. The fedora was listed “in our styles of ladies’ and misses’ hats.” Buried in a column of ads, it scarcely made a blip on the page.

Knox had a more aggressive approach. In September of that same year, he debuted a new ad.

The ad proves that Knox introduced the Fedora as a men’s hat and as the next big thing. It also credits a French artist named Garvarny with creating the look. With that revelation comes three possibilities:

  1. Knox invented Garvarny and got the hat’s name from the play.
  2. Garvarny sold the idea to Knox as his own invention, but kept Bernhardt’s name and concept.
  3. Garvarney resold a French trend that already existed elsewhere.

While we can’t know for certain how Knox got the idea for the Fedora, we do know that his announcement set off a trend. Having Knox embrace a style was akin to Wal-Mart or Starbucks featuring a product today—it could move markets and change fashion. It was in everyone’s interest to drive customers to a new type of hat, so merchants pushed the style.

Within a year, the Knox hat called the Fedora had bounced to Washington, DC, Pennsylvania, and Ohio (where it was complimented as “very nobby”). By that time, it was back in Sacramento as a men’s hat, and a Los Angeles imitator had copied Knox’s hat as “the latest New York Style.”

It didn’t take long for Knox to introduce the French trend to the United States, erase its French (and female origin), and establish a new style. The Fedora was here to stay.

Who should get credit for inventing Fedoras? Perhaps the two unlikely trendsetters should share it. Bernhardt’s role is already established, and she clearly tied the name to the hat (the occasional mentions of Knox Hats never stuck). Still, Knox deserves credit too. He capitalized on her invention, marketing it quickly and efficiently, and making the Fedora last a lot longer than a play’s theatrical run. You can thank both of them the next time you see the dapper hat on the street.

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