What is a Derby?

This blog is intended to address an international audience. Therefore, I believe it is important to identify some English language terminologies that differ between the US and the UK.

Because Europeans were dressing for formal events and business long before there was a United States, a number of terms in shoes and clothing have a European heritage. Since this article is more about English language terminologies I will stick with general terminology differences between the US and the UK, rather than Europe as a whole.

Most terms were coined for various objects through relationships to the designer, manufacturer, or location of introduction.

It should also be noted that a lot of the differences in terminology are basically due to lack of adherence to (or awareness of) historical terminologies, by the US population, and some of the manufacturers. Some of it was born out of simple ignorance of the times, and other aspects are simply cultural. This is not a judgment, just an observation.

A case in point would be the Derby hat, a US term for the UK Bowler hat. In fact in the UK the Bowler may also be referred to as a Billy Coke (pronounced “Billycock”). In the UK a Derby is a Blucher style shoe. It is all a bit confusing.

There are two common theories about why a Bowler is called a Derby in the US:

  1. A US hat manufacturer noticed on his visits to the UK that hat was worn by a large number of the men in the audience at every horse derby he went to, and therefore named his copy of it a Derby. Thus associating it to his location of introduction.
  2. A US hat manufacturer observed the Earl of Derby (pronounced DAR-bi) wearing the hat and therefore named his copy of it after the title of the person he associated with the hat.

I tend to believe the first theory over the second.

In regard to the UK term of Bowler: The name of the hat makers that first built the hat were Thomas and William Bowler (The hat was commissioned by Edward Coke).

The point is: if you are talking/writing to an international audience (as this blog is intended) it makes sense to use terms most everyone understands. I wouldn’t call a Bowler a Derby in the UK (unless I wanted to make the distinction between the hat not the shoe), and I wouldn’t call a Bowler a Billycock in the US. But, I would refer to a Bowler as a Bowler most everywhere.

Finding common ground for some terms is not quite as easy, as they are embedded in the culture. The word “dress” is a good example. Not as in a woman’s dress, but as in a dress shirt, or dress shoes.

The word “dress” in the UK relates more to formal attire, so a dress shoe would be more along the lines of an Opera Pump, not a cap toe oxford. In the UK a cap toe oxford would be considered a “business” shoe. While in the US a cap toe oxford would almost always be called a dress shoe. In cases like this I try to combine the terms into Dress/Business shoe.

Please feel free to add comments about other US/UK terminology distinctions in footwear and clothing.