We recently added a new item to the Hat Works collection: a paper bag bearing the name of the celebrated Italian hat manufacturer, Borsalino. While only a modest object, it nevertheless encapsualtes the way that a hat – and its brand – can evoke a whole world of significance. And there’s a Hat Works connection too!
The Borsalino company was founded in 1857, when Giuseppe Borsalino and his brother Lazzaro set up a small hat-making workshop in Alessandria, a town in Italy’s industrialising north west. According to Deirdre Pirro’s historical account, Giuseppe was a cosmopolitan figure; he undertook a lengthy apprenticeship at the Casa Berteil in Paris and liked to travel the world, splitting his time between mountaineering expeditions and securing commercial deals. He was also an innovator eager to use the most sophisticated methods of production available in order to keep ahead of his competitors. For this reason he quickly turned his attention to the remarkable advances being made in the British hatting industry, particularly by manufacturers based around Stockport and Denton.
In 1897 Giuseppe went so far as to visit Stockport, touring the Battersby factory to study first-hand the production processes that were in place. Coincidentally, this building, on Hempshaw Lane, Offerton, also has an important place in the early history of the Hat Works. While it had been a lively hub of industry at the time of Giuseppe’s visit, a hundred years later the factory was ceasing production – the culmination of a lengthy period of decline that had already seen Battersby merge with several other local hatting manufacturers. Vacated in 1997, it served as the first home to the Hat Works, hosting exhibitions for three years until the museum’s permanent move to Wellington Mill in the centre of Stockport.
In any case, the trip to England was evidently instructive to a man eager to learn all that he could. In fact, Rupert Battersby’s history of the family business recounts a story that illustrates some of the lengths to which Giuseppe would go, describing how “without being seen, he dipped his handkerchief into a vat of ‘tar’, and took back to Italy the English secret for making perfect bowler hats”.
At this point Borsalino had already moved operations to a purpose-built factory in Alessandria, which was filled with hat-making machinery imported from the Stockport area. [You can see pictures of the building and its 1920s replacement here.] With these advances in place, the company’s sales and reputation grew enormously. When Giuseppe died in 1900 – succeeded by his son Teresio – the factory was employing 1,200 workers and producing 750,000 hats a year. Two thirds of these were made for export, with the brand winning particular international renown for its fedora hats.
By 1910, the Borsalino name had actually become so synonymous with the fedora that it gained an entry in the Oxford English Dictionary. However, it was a decade or two later that “the Borsalino” really cornered the market, thanks to its close association with the sleazy glamour of the criminal underworld. It was the hat of choice for Al Capone, and consequently found its way onto the heads of Hollywood’s biggest stars in an era when vice and corruption were popular with cinemagoers, first through the gangster genre and later with the emergence of film noir. Among many other appearances, the Borsalino enjoyed its most famous starring role with Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca in 1942, cementing its iconic status.
As hats began to vanish from the everyday wardrobe of men and women, so Borsalino entered a slow decline. However, the fedora retained its epoch-defining significance. During the early 1960s Hollywood Noir surfaced again: now as an inspiration to France’s generation of New Wave filmmakers, particularly François Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard. In the latter’s debut feature Breathless (1960) we’re presented with a protagonist, played by Jean-Paul Belmondo, who idolises Bogart and repeatedly mimics elements of his hardboiled movie persona. Inevitably, the clinching detail of this hommage is a Borsalino fedora.
Ten years later, there was an altogether less subtle instance of cinematic product placement with the making of the French gangster film Borsalino (1970) – again starring Belmondo, alongside Alain Delon. The film’s plot doesn’t have much to do with headwear, but its title demonstrates the way that “Borsalino” had advanced from simply signifying a type of hat to summoning up a complete historical universe.
Returning to our humble Borsalino bag, it’s clear that this vast cultural legacy has left its mark – despite the fact that the object dates from the last quarter of the twentieth century. We see the famous company name printed beneath the still more famous fedora, whose black-and-white profile is instantly recognisable from countless mug shots and movie stills. Between the two sits the tagline “Under every Borsalino there is a man” (“Sotto ogni Borsalino c’è un uomo“): a phrase whose directness and simplicity hints at the stern, laconic brand of masculinity embodied by stars like Humphrey Bogart. Even today noirish language and imagery continue to appear in advertising material as Borsalino looks back to better times in the face of difficult economic circumstances.
Unfortunately the hatting industry of Alessandria was just as vulnerable to change as that of Stockport. Business had been so good during the 1920s that a new factory was built, forming part of a huge industrial complex that was making two million hats by the end of the decade, three quarters of these to be sold abroad. However, by 1987 a downscaling was necessary and these buildings were acquired by the local university, with production shifting out of town. The company was declared bankrupt in 2017 but seems to be recovering again under new management.
The former factory may no longer fire new fedoras off the production line, but there’s a reminder of its previous life in the form of a small museum that’s located inside (though currently closed for renovation). It opened in 2006 and displays around 2,000 hats as well as photographs and hatmaking tools, offering a history of the hatting industry and the Borsalino company right up to the present.
Thanks to this museum – and a brand that remains a twentieth century icon – the Borsalino legacy looks set to endure. All in all, it’s been quite a journey: from a Stockport hatting factory turned museum, to an Italian hatting factory turned museum, via Al Capone and Humphrey Bogart. A reminder that under every hat there is a story.