the story of the fedora

Sarah Bernhardt in Fédora; the hat she is wearing bears little resemblance to the style which later came to bear the name fedora.—photograph: World Digital Library




The noun fedora denotes a man’s soft, felt hat with the crown creased lengthwise and a somewhat curved brim.

It is first recorded in the following advertisement, published in The Sun (New York, N.Y.) of 26th September 1883:

fedora (hat) - The Sun (N.Y.) - Wed. 26 Sept. 1883

Special Announcement

Some years ago I had the honor of presenting to the gentlemen of New York the “Alpine” or “Tyrolean” soft felt hat, and the pleasure of seeing how readily it was adopted by the American public. No hat since then has been manufactured that so completely met the requirements of an American gentleman. I have now pleasure in announcing that on Saturday next, Sept. 29, I will present for your favorable consideration a new and perfect soft felt hat, one that can be worn upon any and all occasions.


This hat was designed by the famous French artist “Garvarny,” manufactured in Paris of the best materials and by the most skilled workmen. It is in three colors, “Noir,” “Marron,” and “Nubien,” is now the New York Custom House, and will be on sale at my establishment ONLY. Respectfully,

212 Broadway,
Fifth Avenue Hotel,
340 Fulton Street, Brooklyn.


fedora (hat) - Detroit Free Press - 5 Nov. 1883

picture of Knox’s fedora hat
The Detroit Free Press (Detroit, Michigan) – 5th November 1883


This common noun is most probably from Fédora, the title of a drama by the French playwright Victorien Sardou (1831-1908) and the name of its heroine, played in early productions by the French actress Sarah Bernhardt (1844-1923).

This highly successful play premiered at the théâtre du Vaudeville, in Paris, on Monday 11th December 1882; the following day, The Daily News (London) published this review:


PARIS, Monday Night.
Fedora, the new drama of M. Sardou, was produced to-night. The opening scene displays the interior of the St. Petersburg residence of the son of a great Russian police official. A charming appartement de garçon is shown on the stage. We see a large saloon furnished in an imposing style, with in the background a bedroom, in which there is a little chapel. A lamp burns in front of a sacred image. Sarah Bernhardt was much applauded when, soon after the curtain rose, she made her appearance. She plays chiefly with Berton, the grandson of Samson. The chief secondary rôles are assigned to the Michels, and Mdlle. Depoix comes upon the stage as a Moujic. Sarah Bernhardt is the Princess Fedora, betrothed to the son of the great police official. Her fiancé is, on the eve of the day appointed for the wedding, assassinated in a deserted house. A mystery hangs over this event, but Count Ivanhoff, who is known to be a Nihilist, is suspected of being the murderer. Before he can be arrested he escapes to Paris. Fedora learns he is there, and resolves to pursue him. She is a beautiful incarnation of avenging justice, and an imitation of Judith. On arriving in Paris she calls on Count Ivanhoff, and pretends to be in love with him in order to extract a confession from him. When she thinks he is her slave she discovers that there is no law for extraditing Russian murderers who have fled to Paris. She next strikes upon a plan for getting Ivanhoff seized, gagged, thrown into a fly, taken to some wood in the suburbs, and despatched. While thus plotting she falls in love with the Count, and tries to persuade herself that perhaps he is innocent. But he tells her that he is guilty. There is then a dramatic dialogue between her and a secret policeman, who visits her at her lodging, to concert with her about the premeditated assassination. In the fourth act we find her in a villa near London where Ivanhoff has a rendezvous with her for midnight. He discovers her perfidy, and throws himself upon her with brutal fury, trying to strangle her, and pushing her against the marble table. The end is tragical. Fedora dies. In dying she falls with her arms extended, so as to form a cross. Great expense has not been gone to with the stage accessories, but the Fedora dresses must at once affect the fashions. They were made by Madame Morin, of Vienna, and by Worth. In many of the scenes the agony is too much piled up, but this defect is redeemed by the cleverness of the dialogue, and toned down in acting by Sarah Bernhardt and Berton. However, in the final scene the rein is given to sensationalism.

The items of clothing that Sarah Bernhardt was wearing for Fédora were described in detail, for example in the review of the play by Lucy H. Hooper, the correspondent in Paris of The Chicago Daily Tribune (Chicago, Illinois), published on 7th January 1883; but none of these descriptions mentions a hat that would resemble the soft felt fedora and no contemporary evidence connects this style with the male members of the play’s cast.

But, as predicted in The Daily News, “the Fedora dresses […] at once affect[ed] the fashions”; this is the beginning of the review by Lucy H. Hooper:

Paris, France, Dec. 22.—The leading sensation of the hour is undoubtedly “Fedora,” the new play by Sardou at the Vaudeville, wherein Sarah Bernhardt impersonates the heroine so magnificently. The rush for seats is something unprecedented. The new bonbon (there is one invented for every New Year’s in Paris) is called the “Fedora.” The “Fedora” slipper has already made its appearance, and will be followed by any quantity of “Fedora” garments and ornaments.

In the following months, the name was adopted for various items of womenswear, including hats; this advertisement was published in The Illustrated London News on 10th March 1883:

chapeaux Fedora - Illustrated London News - 10 Mar. 1883


The style and variety of Millinery productions for this season are more varied than ever. LES CHAPEAUX DORE, FEDORA, LANGE, and other æsthetic attractions, are singularly novel; whilst other Hats and Bonnets are noteworthy for their refined taste and becoming simplicity.

JAY’S, Regent-street.

This is from The Fancies of Fashion, published in The New York Times (New York, N.Y.) of 15th April 1883:

The long “Fedora redingote” is the style for wear with “demi-toilettes.” It is tight fitting to the figure and is lined with silk. The small velvet collar and revers are trimmed with black silk or with woolen brandebourgs. The most serviceable colors for this redingote are Russian green and slate blue. The fancy shades for the same purpose are putty and “cachon” color, to be worn over both green and seal-colored velvet skirts.

And, on 5th May 1883, Harper’s Bazaar. A Repository of Fashion, Pleasure, and Instruction (New York, N.Y.) published Paris Fashions, by its correspondent Emmeline Raymond, who mentioned, “among the innumerable multitude of bonnets”:

The Fédora is round, and is of white glacé straw, turned up on one side, and trimmed with a bunch of colored feathers, at the bottom of which are three microscopic birds. This bonnet is lined with black velvet, which contrasts prettily with the white straw, and gives an air of youth and distinction to the coiffure.

It is therefore very likely that Knox chose to name his new range of men’s hats fedora because the word evoked fashionable elegance and sophistication as well as Frenchness—he even pretended that the hat had been “designed by the famous French artist Garvarny, whose existence is doubtful (Knox was perhaps alluding to the French lithographer and painter Paul Gavarni, whose real name was Hippolyte Guillaume Sulpice Chevalier (1804-66)).

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