Release notes: adore the fedora

Release notes: adore the fedora

What links an item of men’s headwear and a glamorous fin-de-siècle French actress?

Most sources agree that the fedora, the familiar soft felt hat with a curled brim and a creased crown, sported by heroes and antiheros alike in period TV and film drama—including Indiana Jones and Don Draper of Mad Men—is named after the eponymous heroine of the 1882 play Fédora, by Victorien Sardou, played in its earliest productions in Paris by the famous French actress Sarah Bernhardt.

The OED’s investigations suggest that this certainly does seem to be the case. But quite how—and why—the name of the female lead in a play became attached to an item of male headwear is a subject of some conjecture.

One thing that contemporary evidence does indicate is that a hat in this style was not worn by Sarah Bernhardt herself in the play.

Sarah Bernhardt

Wikimedia Commons

The hat pictured above may possibly be made of soft felt, but bears little resemblance to the style which later came to bear the name. In addition to pictorial evidence, there are reams of print: the premiere of Fédora generated much excitement, marking Bernhardt’s return to the Parisian stage after a hiatus prompted by an ill-tempered spat with the Comédie Français theatre, and there was a great deal of media coverage, not only in France but in the English-speaking press, much of which described the items of costume she wore in astonishing detail. In this context it would seem likely that if Sarah essayed the portrayal of a Russian princess in the hat now known as a fedora, it would have attracted at least some comment.

Trilby, George Du Maurier

George Du Maurier, Harper, 1894

The dress of the male actors in the play goes largely unrecorded, but no direct evidence has been uncovered connecting any male cast member with this (or any) particular style of hat. Contrast the case of the trilby, named after the heroine of George du Maurier’s 1894 novel, but apparently with allusion to an illustration—by Du Maurier himself—in the novel which depicts one of the male characters, Little Billee, wearing a hat of the appropriate type.

So, if no direct connection can be established between the headwear of the cast members, male or female, of Fédora, which premiered in Paris on 11 December 1882, and the style of hat now known by that name, by what process can it have come to pass that, only nine months later, on 26 September 1883, a hat recognizably answering to the modern description is being advertised (with some fanfare) in the New York Sun under the name “Fedora”?

New York Sun, September 26 1883

The answer is probably connected to two related factors. Firstly, not only was the play the object of a great deal of attention and excitement on its premiere, it continued to be very successful and popular. Contemporary reviews are nearly universal in their acclaim, especially for the lead actress, and it seems fair, by early 1883, to characterize Fédora as a theatrical sensation. Secondly, those in the fashion trade in the late 19th century were not slow to recognize, and jump wholeheartedly on, a passing bandwagon when they saw one.

The latter is a phenomenon acknowledged by one of the aforementioned glowing reviews of the play, from the Chicago Daily Tribune for 7 January 1883:

Excerpt from Chicago Daily Tribune

Chicago Daily Tribune, 7 January 1883

The author was proved prescient. In the coming months, blouses, pelisses, silks, redingotes (a type of long coat dress), and indeed hats (for women) which bore the name “Fedora” were all advertised, some examples of which can be seen in the etymology section of the OED entry.

It is in this atmosphere of Fédora frenzy that Knox the Hatter, the first known advertiser of the modern fedora hat, launched his new range of men’s hats. It’s very plausible that, in the autumn of 1883, groping for a marketable name with fashionable, vaguely French associations, he followed a well-worn recent precedent and plumped for “fedora”. It is notable also that he invokes a French designer, Garvarny. It is not clear whether Garvarny really existed, and if he did (perhaps Knox was thinking of the artist Paul Gavarni, real name Sulpice-Guillaume Chevalier, who died in 1866), whether he had the remotest involvement in designing a hat. Certainly Knox was a fairly canny and ruthless businessman, having previously (in 1868) successfully lobbied the New York authorities to tear down a (by many accounts very useful) pedestrian bridge across Broadway in Manhattan, because it partially obscured his storefront.

It seems likely, then, that rather than the name of the play Fédora and its heroine having a direct influence on the naming of the modern fedora, it instead evoked a general aura of stylishness, sophistication, popularity, and Frenchness which was tapped into as part of a clever marketing campaign.

One other major player in the story of the fedora, the playwright Victorien Sardou, has not perhaps received the attention he deserves in the foregoing account, having, after all, been the one who named the play. By way of recompense to him, it should be noted that fedora is not his only contribution to the English language recorded in the OED. Another of his plays, Les Ganaches, influenced the naming of the chocolate and cream confection the ganache. He may have been less satisfied with his other contribution, however: Sardoodledom, a word coined (during Sardou’s lifetime) by George Bernard Shaw to describe “well-wrought, but trivial or morally objectionable, plays, considered collectively”.

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