All about pith helmets

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At the aerodrome in Amman, Jordan, Col. T. E. Lawrence ("Lawrence of Arabia", 2nd from left) and Sir Herbert Samuel (centre) wearing a pith helmet, April 1921

The pith helmet (also known as the safari helmet, sun helmet, topee, sola topee, salacot or topi[a]) is a lightweight cloth-covered helmet made of cork or pith, typically pith from the sola, Aeschynomene aspera, an Indian swamp plant, or A. paludosa, or a similar plant. Designed to shade the wearer's head and face from the sun, pith helmets were often worn by people of European origin in the tropics, but have also been used in other contexts.


British journalist and explorer Sir Henry Morton Stanley, wearing a pith helmet with a white puggaree in 1872

Crude forms of pith helmets had existed as early as the 1840s, but it was around 1870 that the pith helmet became popular with military personnel in Europe's tropical colonies. The Franco-Prussian War had popularized the German Pickelhaube, which may have influenced the distinctive design of the pith helmet. Such developments may have merged with a traditional design from the Philippines, the salakot. The alternative name salacot (also written salakhoff) appears frequently in Spanish and French sources; it comes from the Tagalog word salacsac (or Salaksak). During the Revolution in the Philippine-American War, Emilio Aguinaldo and the Philippine revolutionary military used to wear the pith helmet borrowed from the Spaniards alongside the straw hat and the native salakot.

Originally made of pith with small peaks or "bills" at the front and back, the helmet was covered by white cloth, often with a cloth band (or puggaree) around it, and small holes for ventilation. Military versions often had metal insignia on the front and could be decorated with a brass spike or ball-shaped finial. The chinstrap could be in leather or brass chain, depending on the occasion. The base material later became the more durable cork, although still covered with cloth and frequently still referred to as "pith" helmet.


The earliest appearance of sun helmets made of pith occurred in India during the Anglo-Sikh wars of the 1840s. Adopted more widely during the Indian Mutiny of 1857–59, they were generally worn by British troops serving in the Ashanti War of 1873, the Zulu War of 1878–79 and subsequent campaigns in India, Burma, Egypt and South Africa. This distinctively shaped headwear came to be known as the Foreign Service helmet.

During the Anglo-Zulu War, British troops dyed their white pith helmets with tea, mud or other makeshift means of camouflage. Subsequently khaki-coloured pith helmets became standard issue for active tropical service.

While this form of headgear is particularly associated with both the British and the French empires, all European colonial powers used versions of it during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The French tropical helmet was first authorised for white colonial troops in 1878. The Dutch wore the helmet during the entire Aceh War (1873–1914) and the United States Army adopted it during the 1880s for use by soldiers serving in the intensely sunny climate of the Southwest United States. It was also worn by the North-West Mounted Police in policing North-West Canada, 1873 through 1874 to the North-West Rebellion and even before the Stetson in the Yukon Gold Rush of 1898.

European officers commanding locally recruited indigenous troops, as well as civilian officials in African and Asian colonial territories, used the pith helmet. White troops serving in the tropics usually wore pith helmets; although on active service they sometimes used such alternatives as the wide-brimmed slouch hats, which were worn by US troops in the Philippines and by British Empire forces in the later stages of the Boer War.


Australian policeman (left) wearing pith helmet at the trial of Ned Kelly

At the same time, the military adopted a broadly similar helmet, of dark blue cloth over cork and incorporating a bronze spike, for wear in non-tropical areas. This helmet led to the retirement of the shako headdress. While not considered a true "pith helmet" this headdress did resemble its tropical counterpart and during the 1890s a white version which could be worn in both the United Kingdom and India was experimentally issued to some British regiments. Modelled on the German Pickelhaube, the British Army adopted this headgear (which they called the "Home Service Helmet") in 1878. Most British line infantry, artillery (with ball rather than spike) and engineers wore the helmet until 1902, when khaki Service Dress was introduced. With the general adoption of khaki for field dress in 1903, the helmet became purely a full dress item, being worn as such until 1914.

The Home Service Helmet is still worn by some British Army bands or Corps of Drums on ceremonial occasions today. It is closely related to the custodian helmet worn by a number of police forces in England and Wales.

The US Army wore blue cloth helmets of the same pattern as the British model from 1881 to 1901 as part of their full dress uniform. The version worn by cavalry and mounted artillery included plumes and cords in the colours (yellow or red) of their respective branches of service.

British troops wearing pith helmets in Iraq, 11 June 1941

Black helmets of a similar shape were also part of the uniform of the Victoria Police during the late 19th century. It may have been worn by some of the police involved in the shootout with the legendary bushranger Ned Kelly at Glenrowan, although contemporary sketches show kepis being worn.


German Tropenhelm, ca. 1910

Pith helmets were widely worn during World War I by British, Belgian, French and German colonial troops fighting in the Middle East and Africa.

Helmets of this style (but without true pith construction) were used as late as World War II by Japanese, European and American military personnel in hot climates. Included in this category are the sun helmets worn in Ethiopia by Italian troops, the Royal Netherlands East Indies Army, Union Defence Force, and Germany's Afrika Korps, as well as similar helmets used to a more limited extent by U.S. and Japanese forces in the Pacific Theatre.

Pith helmets abandoned by retreating Italian forces during the North African campaign.

During the 1930s the locally recruited forces maintained in the Philippines, (consisting of the army and a gendarmerie), used sun helmets. The Axis Second Philippine Republic's military, known as the Bureau of Constabulary, as well as guerrilla groups in the Philippines also wore this headdress.

The Ethiopian Imperial Guard retained pith helmets as a distinctive part of their uniform until the overthrow of Emperor Haile Selassie I in 1974. Imperial Guard units serving in the Korean War often wore these helmets when not in actual combat.

The British Army formally abolished the tropical helmet in 1948.

Naval use
While not usually perceived as a headdress suitable for sea wear, a white tropical helmet was issued to personnel of the French Navy serving in the Red Sea, Far Eastern waters and the Pacific between 1922 and the 1940s.] Prior to World War I the British and other navies had sometimes provided pith helmets for landing parties in tropical regions.

Wolseley pattern
The Wolseley pattern helmet is a distinctive British design developed and popularized in the late 19th and early 20th century. It was the official designation for the universal sun helmet worn by the British Army from 1899 to 1948 and described in the 1900 Dress Regulations as "the Wolseley pattern cork helmet". With its swept-back brim it provided greater protection from the sun than the old Foreign Service helmet, and its use was soon widespread among British personnel serving overseas. In the early 20th century the Canadian Militia adopted it as full-dress headgear for infantry of the line, and several armour and infantry regiments maintain its use.

Through the first half of the twentieth century, the Wolseley pattern helmet was worn with civil uniform by British colonial, diplomatic and consular officials serving in 'hot climates'. It was worn with a gilt badge of the royal arms at the front. When worn by Governors and Governors-general the helmet was topped by a 10-inch red and white swan-feather plume. British diplomats in tropical postings, Governors-General, Governors and colonial officials continued to wear the traditional white helmets as part of their ceremonial white uniforms until Foreign and Commonwealth Office officials ceased to wear such dress during the late 20th century for reasons of economy. The ceremonies marking the end of British rule in Hong Kong in 1997 featured the Royal Hong Kong Police aide-de-camp to the Governor in a white Wolseley pith helmet with blue feathers, and was probably the last occasion on which this style of headdress appeared as a symbol of Empire.

Sir Reginald Wingate posing with Wolseley style helmet circa 1899

Prior to World War II, Royal Navy officers wore the Wolseley helmet when in white (tropical) uniform; the helmet was plain white, with a narrow navy-blue edging to the top of the puggaree.

In the army a khaki version was frequently worn, ornamented with a regimental cap badge. The full-dress white helmet varied further from regiment to regiment: it was topped with a spike (for infantry and cavalry regiments, for the Army Ordnance Corps and the Royal Engineers) or a ball (for Artillery and other corps), and some regiments had distinctive puggarees. General officers and staff officers in full dress wore plumes similar to those worn on their full-dress cocked hats.


Such was the popularity of the pith helmet that it became a common civilian headgear for Westerners in the tropics and sub-tropics from the mid-19th century. The civilian pith helmet usually had the same dimensions and outline as its contemporary military counterpart though it lacked decorative extras such as badges. It was worn by men and women, old and young, both on formal and casual occasions, until the 1940s. Both white and khaki versions were used. It was often worn together with civilian versions of khaki drill and/or bush jackets.

Until the 1950s there was a widespread assumption that wearing this form of head-dress was necessary for people of European origin to avoid sunstroke in the tropics. By contrast, indigenous peoples were assumed to have acquired a relative immunity. Modern medical opinion holds that some form of wide brimmed but light headwear (such as a Panama hat etc.) is highly advisable in strong sunlight for people of all races to avoid skin cancers and overheating.


Royal Marines on parade in 1972

The Royal Marines still wear white "Wolseley pattern" helmets of the same general design as the old pith helmet as part of their number 1 or dress uniform. These date from 1912 in their present form and are made of natural cork covered in white cloth on the outside and shade green on the inside. Decoration includes a brass ball ornament at the top, helmet plate and chin chain. A similar headdress is worn by the Tongan Royal Guard.

The Ensign of the Royal Gibraltar Regiment, when mounting the Queen's Guard in 2012

Australian military bands, such as the Army Band and that of the Royal Military College Duntroon, still wear the white pith helmet as do the New South Wales Mounted Police. The Royal Gibraltar Regiment wear the white pith helmet with a white tunic (in summer) and red tunic (in winter).

The white Wolseley helmet (still with red and white swan-feather feather plume) may still occasionally be worn by Governors of British Overseas Territories when in uniform. Since 2001 such dress has been provided only at the expense of the territory concerned and is no longer paid for by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office.

The pith helmet continues to be worn by cadets in senior positions at the Royal Military College of Canada for certain parades and special occasions. Notably, the Cadet Wing Commander, Deputy Wing Commander, Wing Training Officer, Wing Administration Officer, Squadron Leaders, Squadron Training Officers, and the Colour Party. The same pattern of helmet forms part of the ceremonial dress uniform of the Royal Canadian Regiment and Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry, with distinctively coloured (red and French grey respectively) puggarees.

United States
The U.S. Navy authorized a plastic khaki sun helmet for wear by officers in tropical regions during the mid-20th Century. It was decorated with a full-size officer's hat crest on the front. The U.S. Marine Corps pith helmet has also seen use as a form of identification by rifle range coaches, similarly the campaign hat is worn by rifle range instructors as well as drill instructors. White (in some places light blue) sun helmets of plastic material but traditional design are still worn today by some mail carriers of the U.S. Postal Service, when delivering the mail on foot in hot climates - such as Puerto Rico, South Carolina, Florida, Southern California, Arizona, and Hawaii - or during rainy weather.

A pith helmet with a feather plume is part of the uniform of the Phantom Regiment Drum and Bugle Corps, from Rockford, Illinois.

The Netherlands
A black pith helmet similar to the British Home Service helmet is worn with the ceremonial uniforms of the Garderegiment Fuseliers Prinses Irene and the Netherlands Marine Corps.

After World War II, the communist Viet Minh and later the People's Army of Vietnam of the North based their helmet design on the French pith helmet of the former colonial power and adopted it as their own. Today it is still widely worn by civilians in Vietnam (mostly in the North, but its use has seen a sharp decline since 2007, when the motorbike helmet became mandatory for motorbike riders). This style of headdress now appears only rarely as part of military and police uniforms. In design, the Vietnamese model was similar to the pre–World War II civilian type, but covered in jungle green cloth, sometimes with a metal insignia at the front.

Other nations

Italian policewoman wearing tall pith helmet, 1980s

The Compagnie des Carabiniers du Prince of Monaco and by the Sri Lankan Police as part of their dress uniform. In the Philippines, some ceremonial units use sun helmets, as do the Royal Guards of the Royal Thai Army.

Thai Royal Guards wearing sun helmets

Pith helmets with black pugarees were the standard duty headgear used by highway traffic officers in the Dominican Republic's National Police up until the beginning of the 21st century, when these units were replaced by the creation of the Autoridad Metropolitana de Transporte (AMET) corps, who were issued dark green Stetson hats instead.

White Wolseley helmets are worn by mounted presidential guard members in Harare, Zimbabwe, during the opening of every first parliamentary session.

A khaki or white pith helmet is part of the standard summer uniform of traffic officers in certain police departments in India.

Modern Italian municipal police wear a helmet modelled on the Model 1928 tropical helmet of the Royal Italian Army for foot patrols in summer. These are made from white plastic with cork or pith interior lining and resemble the British Custodian helmet, though taller and narrower.

Modern commercial models
The pith helmet has had a limited comeback in recent years, with their now novel appearance and genuine functionality making the headdress increasingly popular for gardening, hiking, safari and other outdoor activities. Today's helmets are generally available in four basic types (see below). These have changed little since the early 1900s, except that for easier adjustment the inner headband utilises velcro instead of the earlier brass pins.

(i) French pith helmet. This is the most functional of the helmets, with its wide brim providing more sun protection than the more narrow-brimmed variations. This helmet is mostly made in Vietnam, where the design was inherited from French colonial patterns. Like other civilian pith helmets it can be soaked in water to keep the wearer's head cool in hot weather. Another feature in common with other patterns is the adjustable chinstrap at the front of the helmet.

(ii) Indian pith helmet. The Indian model is almost exactly the same as the French one, but with a slightly narrower brim and a squarer dome. It shares with other helmets the ventilation "button" atop the dome.

(iii) African pith helmet,or safari helmet, is a variation mainly used in savanna or jungle regions of Africa. It is generally a khaki-grey colour, with the same dimensions and shape as the Indian helmet described above.

(iv) Wolseley pith helmet. This variation of the helmet was named after (but not designed by) Sir Garnet Wolseley and widely used by the British Army and Colonial civil service from 1900. The Wolseley helmet differs from other pith helmets in having a more sloping brim with an apex at the front and back. The dome is also taller and more conical than the other more rounded variations. It is the helmet often portrayed as being worn by stereotypical "Gentleman Explorers".


Pith helmet of the Second French Empire, spiked helmet in pickelhaube style, marked with the name of Ranavalona III (1869–1917), the last queen of Madagascar

Home Service helmet with the capstan of the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers. Not a pith helmet but with similar shape.

Pith helmet of Harry S. Truman

German Pith Helmet from the Second World War

A khaki-coloured Indian-made shola-style pith helmet (shola topee) from the post-WW-II era, made from pressed sholapith and used both by government employees as well as civilians in South Asia and the Middle East until after World War II

French Navy pith helmet of the early 20th century

An NVA pith helmet worn during the Vietnam War

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