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August 2020

A hat with baggage

We discovered this hat while cleaning out some cupboards. Can you tell us something about it?

Answer



A European modification of a Philippine headdress, pith helmets start appearing in the 1840’s. The earlier styles from the 1840's through to the 1880’s tended to be taller and more domed shaped than this example. This style appears around the 1880’s and was often referred to as the Polo style and influenced the subsequent Wolseley pattern British military issue sun helmet that was in use in hot climates up to the end of WWII.

This example does not have any military insignia or fittings and was probably purchased for tropical day wear. They became the unofficial badge of European administrators in colonial provinces earning them the nickname 'Bombay bowlers" after the bowler hat that was common street wear for gentlemen in late 1800’s and early 1900’s England.

The label states “Real Solar pith for the Lucky Stores Aden. Made in India”.  Aden was administered by the British from 1839 to 1967 and after the opening of the Suez Canal became a vital and extremely busy sea port. It was the perfect place for a traveller either entering Africa from the south or the Indian Ocean from the north to want to purchase a practical and stylish sun helmet.

Not all sun helmets are true pith helmets as they are often made from cork or felt stitched and glued to a fabric cover or cloth covered woven wicker, cane or straw. This example is a real pith helmet. The core of the helmet was made from the pith or core of the Aeschynomene aspera plant also known as the sola plant.  Also known as the Sola Topee (Hindi topee= hat) this became corrupted to “Solar Topee” or sun hat.

Pith helmets were common in Australia for police and military as well as civilian wear in the late 188 and early 1900’s and were still in use by some state police forces until the 1970’s. Pith helmets are still worn with some Australian mounted police and military band dress uniforms.

The pith helmet is often negatively associated with European colonialism. This is due to its prevalence as military headwear for European troops serving in Africa and Asia during the 19th and early 20th centuries. Hollywood’s use of the pith helmet to depict European hunters on safari probably has not helped its image either! The strength of the white imperialist image associated with the pith helmet can be gauged by the negative commentary that accompanied Melania Trump wearing a pith helmet on her tour of Africa in 2018.

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