Trilby: A soft hat, traditionally made of felt, with a narrow brim and indented crown.
The trilby hat style takes its name from Trilby, the title and principal character of an 1894 novel by the British writer and caricaturist* George du Maurier (grandfather of Daphne du Maurier). In Du Maurier’s story, Trilby O’Ferrall is a half-Irish woman living la vie bohème in Paris; she’s transformed from artist’s model to opera diva through the hypnotic powers of a sinister mesmerist named Svengali. In one production of the play that was adapted from the novel, the actress playing Trilby wore a distinctive short-brimmed hat that became a fashionable menswear staple. Du Maurier may have borrowed the name “Trilby” from an 1822 novel, Trilby, ou le lutin d’Argail,by Charles Nodier, in which Trilby was a Scottish fairy; the ballet La Sylphide is based on the French story.
(Like trilby, “Svengali” also entered the lexicon: it’s “a person who exerts a sinister controlling influence,” usually over a woman. “The name has been absorbed into the language as irrevocably as ‘Simon Legree’ as a definition of cruelty, or ‘Scrooge’ of parsimony,” wrote Avis Berman in a 1993 article for Smithsonian Magazine. Trilby also contributed the phrase “in the altogether” as a euphemism for “naked.”)
From the back cover of the Oxford World’s Classics paperback edition of Trilby (2009):
Immensely popular for years, the novel led to a hit play, a series of popular films, Trilby products from hats to ice-cream, and streets in Florida named after characters in the book.
Trilby cropped up last week in responses to an item about a New York Mets promotion:
The hat in the photo is not a fedora but rather a trilby: the short brim is the key distinction. (You’d think a magazine once known as Gentlemen’s Quarterly would have been quicker to notice.)
Top row, far left: fedora. Top row, second from left: trilby. Source: Real Men Real Style.
From a reminiscence by the novelist John Le Carré published in the September 29, 2008, issue of The New Yorker:
The A.I.O., however, had opted for the more traditional spy’s attire: fawn raincoat and trilby hat, which, together with his military mustache, gave him, to my callow eye, a rather too British look.
It’s worth mentioning that the fedora hat style is also named for a female character in a 19th-century stage play. Fédora—the name is the Russian equivalent of “Theodora”—was written in 1882 for the great actress Sarah Bernhardt, who wore a center-creased soft felt hat in the role. “Due to the fedora’s linking with a public figure who was assertive, sexually liberated and took on masculine roles, the women’s rights movement adopted it as a symbol and from there it spread to women in general,” writes Robert Rath in a 2014 issue of The Escapist. It took a while for fedoras to cross over to menswear.
Trilby—the 1894 novel and subsequent play—also inspired a shoe style (in the novel and play, Trilby’s feet were much admired). “Trilbies” became a colloquialism for “feet.”
Source: Ann Arbor Argus, March 8, 1895.
Trilby was a brand of shoe polish.
In 1901, the mayor of Macon, Florida, renamed the town Trilby “after the heroine of a story which has lately deeply moved me.” The U.S.S. Trilby, a U.S. Navy patrol vessel in commission during 1917, was also named after the fictional heroine.
* Du Maurier’s most famous cartoon gave us the idiom “curate’s egg,” which originally meant something partly good that’s ruined by its bad part. It now usually describes something that’s partly good and partly bad.