THE MAN IN THE BOWLER HAT by Fred Miller Robinson


His History and Iconography
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 Robinson (English/University of San Diego; Comic Moments, 1992, etc.--not reviewed) traces the cultural significance of the bowler hat from 1850 to the present--in a study as lighthearted and charming as its subject. Having asked, ``Why did Samuel Beckett specify that the four major characters of Waiting for Godot wear bowler hats?,'' in a 1986 TriQuarterly article, Robinson was moved to expand his inquiry to book length, studying modern life through the evolving meanings of this item of fashion that combines--symbolically and literally- -both lightness and weight. Following the history of the bowler ``as though a wind were blowing it just beyond [my] reach,'' Robinson tells of the hat's debut, in 1850 London, where its combination of style and function satisfied Victorian England's obsession with the practical and the correct. The bowler soon passed from informal use among the aristocracy into a badge of respectability by the upwardly mobile middle class, eventually inspiring Chaplin to use it in his parody of the earnest ``little man.'' As 20th-century life brought new strains of malaise, the bowler became a symbol of mass-produced anonymity in Magritte's paintings; of grim soullessness in the works of Anton Raderscheidt and Georg Grosz; and, finally, in Germany, of Jewish greed and evil. By 1948, when Beckett began writing Godot, the bowler had come to stand for an immutable social identity. It has since settled into the relative obscurity of costume wear, resurfacing only occasionally--e.g., as Oddjob's weapon in Goldfinger and an erotic toy in Milan Kundera's The Unbearable Lightness of Being. Yet the bowler continues to ``[express] its history precisely as it floats past it,'' Robinson concludes, until it becomes a pure design object that can adapt to anything--and ``the dream of the modern will be realized, in at least one small object, at the end of the modern age.'' A tip of the hat to this playful yet thought-provoking work. (Fifty-two illustrations)

Pub Date: April 16th, 1993
ISBN: 0-8078-2073-3
Page count: 216pp
Publisher: Univ. of North Carolina
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 1st, 1993