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The pith helmet (also known as the safari helmet, sun helmet, topee, sola topee, salacot or topi) is a lightweight cloth-covered helmet made of cork or pith (typically pith from the sola Indian swamp growth, Aeschynomene aspera; or A. paludosa) or a similar plant.

Designed to shade the wearer's head and face from the sun, pith helmets were once much worn by Westerners in the tropics, but have also been used in other contexts.

British troops wearing pith helmets in Iraq, 11 June 1941


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 Philippinesmarker, the Salakot. The alternative name salacot (also written salakhoff) appears frequently in Spanish and French sources and comes from the Tagalog word salacsac (or Salaksak). Emilio Aguinaldo and the Philippine revolutionary military used to wear the pith helmet from the Spaniards alongside the straw hat and the native salakot during the Revolution in the Philippine-American War.

Originally made of pith with small peaks (bills) at the front and back, the helmet was covered by white cloth, often with a cloth band (or puggaree) around it, and small holes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 (indeed, another common Spanish name literally translates as cork helmet ), although still covered with cloth and frequently still referred to as "pith" helmets.

Colonial period

This form of headdress is now associated strongly with the British Empire. However, the pith helmet was used by all European colonial powers, and during the 1880s even by the United Statesmarker Army [98987] in the Southwest U.S.

It was commonly worn by white officers commanding locally recruited soldiers in the colonial troops of France, Britain, Spain, Portugal, Italy, Imperial Germany and the Netherlands, as well as civilian officials in their tropical territories. White troops serving in the tropics usually wore pith helmets, although on active service they were sometimes replaced by more comfortable and less conspicuous alternatives such as the wide brimmed slouch hats worn by US troops in the Philippines and by British Empire forces in the later stages of the Boer War.

Image:Musee-de-lArmee-IMG 0976.jpg|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.File:Pith helmet mg 5169.jpg|French Navy pith helmet of the early 20th century

Home Service helmet

Parallel to the development of the sun helmet, a broadly similar helmet, of dark blue cloth over cork and incorporating a bronze spike, was adopted for military wear in non-tropical areas, although it was rarely thought of as a true "pith helmet". Modelled on the German Pickelhaube, but distinctly different, this headdress was first adopted by the British Army (which called it the "Home Service Helmet") in 1878, followed by the United States Army in 1881. The British version was worn on most occasions by line infantry, artillery and engineers until 1902, and the introduction of khaki Service Dress. However, even with the introduction of Service Dress, the appropriate field service headgear was still being developed, and some units continued to wear the helmet on exercise while others adopted slouch hats (from Boer War experience) or the Broderick cap. Finally, the introduction of khaki peaked (billed) caps in 1905 relegated the helmet to being a purely full dress item. The blue cloth helmets worn by American mounted troops until 1901 were particularly elaborate, being decorated with plumes and cords in the colours (yellow or red) of their branches of service.

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 still worn by a number of police forces in Englandmarker.

Use during the Zulu War, World Wars and subsequently

German Pith Helmet from the Second World War
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.

Pith helmets were widely worn during World War I by British Empire, Turkish, 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 Japanesemarker, European and American military personnel in hot climates. Included in this category are the sun helmets worn in North Africa by Italian troopsmarker, South African Army and Air Force units and Germanymarker's Afrika Korps, as well as similar helmets used to a more limited extent by U.S. and Japanese [98988] forces in the Pacific Theater.

The entire military of the America's colony the Philippines, which consisted of an army and a gendarmerie, used sun helmets. The U.S. Marine Corps first issued pith helmets called "elephant hats" to the 1st Marine Division's deployment to Guantánamo Baymarker in 1940. They were worn in the South Pacific as well as worn by recruits in United States Marine Corps Boot Camp. The Axis Second Philippine Republic's military, known as the Bureau of Constabulary, as well as other guerrilla groups in the Philippines was another user of sun helmets. The British Army formally abolished the tropical helmet in 1948.

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

Civilian use

Such was the popularity of the pith helmet that it became a common civilian headgear for Westerners in the tropics from the end of the 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 Second World War.

Until the 1930s there was a widespread assumption that wearing this form of headdress was necessary for people of European origin to avoid sunstroke in the tropics—indigenous peoples were assumed to have acquired natural immunity over many generations.

Modern medical opinion holds that some form of wide brimmed but light headdress is highly advisable in strong sunlight for people of all races to avoid skin cancers and overheating.

Modern survivals

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 as well as the Compagnie des Carabiniers du Prince of Monacomarker 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.

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 the practice died out during the 1970s and '80s. The ceremonies marking the end of British rule in Hong Kongmarker in 1997 were probably the last occasion on which this style of headdress was seen as a symbol of Empire.

After World War II, the Viet Minh of Vietnammarker 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 sharp decline since 2007 when the motorbike helmet became mandatory for motorbike riders) but appears only rarely as part of the military uniform. 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.

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 (USPS), when delivering the mail on foot in hot climates such as South Carolina, Florida, Southern California, Arizona, New York, and Hawaii.

White colored helmets with black ribbons (virtually identical to the one pictured above, belonging to Harry Truman) were the standard duty head gear used by highway traffic officers in the Dominican Republicmarker'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 use dark green Stetson hats instead.

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.

The pith helmet continues to be worn by cadets in senior positions at the Royal Military College of Canadamarker 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.

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

Image gallery

Image:Royal guard march to change guard in the Grand Palace, Thailand.JPG|
Thai Royal Guards using sun helmets.


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