Allow me to preface this piece by saying that no, I do not personally wear pith hats in public (although there was that one time) and no, I am not necessarily advocating for them to become popular (although stranger trends have happened, looking at you men’s skirts). But like the boater –which we are still waiting to make its comeback– it could be time for the pith hat to see a world wider than Ralph Lauren window displays and letter carriers.
A pith hat is not your standard headgear. More protective than practical, more of a shield than something stylish, the pith hat was a military helmet, that was adopted in the mid-nineteenth century by Anglophiles on safari, who were just looking for a way to combat the blistering Saharan sun. It was in the late 1800’s that the pith hat rose to prominence throughout Europe’s tropical colonies. The original version of the hat was constructed from real strands of pith extracted from the region’s plants (although later this would be replaced by cork and ultimately plastic), wrapped in white cloth, and often adorned with a military insignia.
There were many versions of the pith hat, but the most recognizable one is the Wolseley pattern helmet. This circular brimmed version was worn by the British army between 1899 and 1948, and sat high on the wearer’s head, providing complete coverage for these soldiers that were stationed in warmer climates. The civilian pith hat, also known as the Bombay bowler, had a similar shape as the military design, and became quite popular throughout the tropics. By the mid-century though, they were replaced by the less obnoxious looking Panama hat, relegating the once beloved pith to the back of your grandparent’s closet, where it has collected dust ever since. Nonetheless, the pith remains an important piece of history, and they have certainly earned their place in the obscure headgear hall of fame. –JG