The Hatted Professor in his 1920s Dobbs Derby
The Fedora Story, Part I: The True Origin of the Fedora

The Traditional Fedora Origin Story

In the history of the Fedora, it is the oft-repeated claim that actress Sarah Bernhardt either originated or popularized the hat that came to be known as the Fedora.  The details in the story vary, however.  In some versions, Ms. Bernhardt, a reported cross-dresser, daringly wore a man’s hat in her 1882 role as the Russian Princess Fédora Romanoff in Victorien Sardou’s play, Fédora.  The hat in question has often been described as being a soft-felt, wide-brimmed hat, sometimes referred to as a slouch hat.  In other versions, the hat is originally a woman’s hat that eventually crosses the gender line to become a man’s hat.  The problem with these stories is that digging into the historical evidence reveals that nothing of the sort occurred.  Despite these claims, there is no evidence that Sarah Bernhardt popularized the hat known as the Fedora.

Myth Busted

In all of the reviews of the play, almost all attention to Ms. Bernhardt’s costumes is given to her dresses.  There is no mention of any headwear resembling a man’s hat.  The idea that she outrageously chose to wear a man’s hat is knocked down by lack of evidence.  If she was so bold and daring as to defy social conventions and wear a man’s hat, it would have made the news.  However, it didn’t make the news, so the simplest, most-logical conclusion is that it didn’t occur the way conventional wisdom states.   If there was a popular hat that came out of the production of Fédora, much ado would have been made of it.  As it turns out, much ado was made of a hat named after the play, but it was first and foremost a man’s hat, and it came not from Bernhardt or her French production of Fédora, but from the Fanny Davenport-led American production the very next year.

Chicago Daily Tribune, January 7, 1883, p. 9

Description of Sarah Bernhardt's costumes from the play:

Chicago Daily Tribune, January 7, 1883, p. 9

Fédora's Fashions

Sardou's Fédora became a public sensation in Paris upon its premiere in December 1882, and was widely reported on in the United States at the time.  Because popular culture influenced fashion in years past, just as it does today, manufacturers and retailers took advantage of the emotional connections people made to the characters to sell products (one reason why fedoras became popular for a while in the 1980s after the release of Raiders of the Lost Ark and its sequels). The costumes worn by Ms. Bernhardt inspired countless fashion cues, all given the moniker Fedora, including blouses, vests, lace, slippers, and neckties.

The New York Times, August 5, 1883, p. 4

"Gossipy Paragraphs," Otago Witness (NZ), September 29, 1883, p. 27

Amidst the Fédora fashion craze, there are a few mentions of a woman’s hat or bonnet by the same name.

The Daily Republican Monongahela, April 26, 1883, p. 3

The Topeka Daily Capital, May 3, 1883, p. 5

The Record-Union, Sacramento, August 17, 1883 p. 4

The American Premiere

Fannie Davenport assumed the role of Fédora beginning with the October 1, 1883, American premiere of the play at Haverly's Fourteenth-Street Theatre in NYC.  Robert Mantell played the role of Count Loris Ipanoff, though there is no record of the hat style he wore.

The New York Times, November 18, 1883, p. 9

There is very little press given to the role of the men in Fédora or their costumes, though it's not a stretch of the imagination to assume that the male lead might have worn a hat styled similar to what became known as the Fedora in the United States. The best evidence to suggest that we should credit Robert Mantell with the popularity of the Fedora comes from the only these two references to have surfaced.  Both are from several decades after the play's premiere, but they are closer in time to the birth of the Fedora than any of the stories surrounding Sarah Bernhardt.  The second article seems to be confusing the 1920s version of the Fedora with that of the original.  We will discuss the evolution of the style in Part II of this essay.

"The Chaffing Dish," Evening Public Ledger (PA), October 22, 1919, p. 10

"Plays and Players," Lewiston Daily Sun (ID), July 4, 1928, p. 4

The Debut of the Fedora

The original fedoras were distinctly different from the hat now known as the Fedora.  The original from 1883 was a soft felt hat with a tall, tapered crown, a deep center crease and seemed to have often have had a front pinch. The style was European, as were most hat styles of the period, and often referred to as Alpine or Alpen, though the naming convention was fluid, as they were also called Tyrolean and Tourist styles at various points in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries. Its soft felt crown defined the fedora, rather than its brim size, brim shape, or brim curl. Those aspects could vary in relation to a fedora crown.

A week before the American debut of the play, Knox the Hatter began a national media campaign in their native New York City, and places as diverse as Pittsburgh and Sacramento.  The ads touted Knox’s new men’s hat, “The Fedora,” taking advantage of the public’s anticipation of the play’s premiere.  There is no mention of the play, or that the hat corresponds to something worn by Robert Mantell in the production.  Purportedly designed by a Frenchman to give it cachet, the sales of the style had to have been good, because within a year many manufacturers offered their own version of the Fedora style with that name.

Advertisements for the new Knox Fedora:

New York Sun, September 26, 1883, p.4

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, October 5, 1883, p. 5

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, October 6, 1883, p. 2

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, October 6, 1883, p. 4

The Record-Union, Sacramento, November 22, 1883, p. 3

The Record-Union, Sacramento, January 3, 1884, p. 3

So what did the first Fedoras look like?  This earliest advertising artwork of Fedoras show the Tyrolean style, with a tall, tapered crown and center crease, along with rolled and curled brim.

Los Angeles Herald, January 20, 1884, p. 3

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, April 3, 1884, p. 8

That spring of 1884, following the American debut of the play, the Fedora hat was advertised nationally.

Wilkes-Barre Record, February 9, 1884, p. 9

The York Daily (York, PA), February 9, 1884, p. 4

National Republican (Washington, DC) March 6, 1884, p. 6

Daily Charlotte Observer, April 4, 1884, p. 3

Proving its popularity, the Fedora hat even shows up in colloquial use in non-advertisement newspaper usage within months of its American debut.  In 1884, Fedoras seemed to be everywhere.

Colloquial Use of Fedora, Fort Wayne Daily Gazette, January 6, 1884, p. 7

Colloquial Use of Fedora, Chicago Daily Tribune, February 16, 1884, p. 16

Mystery Solved?

This, then, is the true origin of the Fedora, not as a hat worn by Sarah Bernhardt, but most likely as a hat worn by Robert Mantell.  It does owe its name to Sardou's play, but beyond that, the real story diverges from the myth.  Purportedly designed in 1883 by a Frenchman, and utilizing an existing European style, the Fedora evolved into the quintessential American hat, one of very different styling.  But if the original Fedora was more like what we now think of as a Homburg, how did it evolve into that most quintessential piece of headwear for American men?

The evolution of the Fedora is discussed in The Fedora Story - Part II.

~The Hatted Professor

© 2016 J. Bradford Bowers


The History of Crofut & Knapp, Dobbs, and Cavanagh Hat Manufacturing

The Hatted Professor

The Hatted Professor in his 1920s Dobbs Derby
The Fedora Story, Part I: The True Origin of the Fedora

The Hatted Professor

The Fedora Story, Part I: The True Origin of the Fedora
Contact the Hatted Professor
The Hatted Professor

The Hatted Professor

The Fedora Story, Part I: The True Origin of the Fedora
Contact the Hatted Professor
The Hatted Professor