When we watch hard-boiled detectives like Sam Spade or Philip Marlowe wear fedoras in film noir movies, we probably don't relate the hats they're wearing to the French stage actress Sarah Bernhardt, but they actually do have a connection to her, though it might be somewhat tenuous.
The name fedora comes from Fédora, a drama by Victorien Sardou, who was known for writing such well-made plays as A Scrap of Paper, and would go on to pen hits like La Tosca, Thermidor, and Gismonda. When Fédora first opened in Paris in 1882, it starred Bernhardt, who was the most famous actress in France, and probably the world.
Bernhardt had first toured the United States in 1880 and 1881, then performed a three-week stint at London's Gaiety Theatre, and Fédora was one of the first new plays she decided to perform after her triumphs abroad. Sardou appears to have tailored the title role specifically for Bernhardt, as he would later do with a host of other plays. After the playwright read the piece aloud to her in her garden, she agreed to do the play, but for a mammoth sum and only after her schedule cleared sometime in the new year.
Fédora premiered at the Théâtre du Vaudeville in Paris on December 12, 1882, with Pierre Berton playing the male lead, and not Bernhardt's new husband, Jacques Damala, as the actress had wanted. The play opened as a success, but the new marriage did not. Damala's resentment at being passed over for a plum role, and his jealousy of his wife's success, led him to abandon her and enlist with the Foreign Legion in North Africa. (When he returned the next year, things went even worse for the couple.) Despite initial enthusiasm from audiences, Fédora ended up losing money, and a string of bombs cost Bernhardt dearly.
Another Sardou play, Théodora, revived the actress's fortunes, but after a couple more disappointing productions, she decided to embark on a world tour, including a return to the United States. It was on this tour in 1887 that Bernhardt performed Fédora in New York at the Star Theatre on Broadway, but by that time, the play had already premiered in America with Fannie Davenport in the title role. It was after Davenport first performed Fédora in the U.S. in 1883 that advertisements start appearing using the name of the play for a style of hat. The first such ad, appearing in the New York Sun, called the fedora "a new and perfect soft felt hat, one that can be worn upon any and all occasions."
An advertisement the following year in the Daily Charlotte Observer called the fedora "'The Hat' of this season." Since early advertisements and other references to fedoras seem to always refer to men's hats, it would seem that the hat was modeled after the one worn by Robert Mantell, who played opposite Davenport in the play. The famous photograph we have of Bernhardt in the role does show her wearing a hat, but one that looks nothing like a fedora:
Still, it was Bernhardt who made the play a hit, and the play that lent its name to the hat style. This is just one of the many ways that Bernhardt has influenced popular culture, and continues to influence it to this day.