Looking at Hats Part 2: The Kepi

Donning a new piece of head history, we’ll be taking a look at the incredibly characteristic Kepi. As most Americans will recognize the unstiffened version worn by soldiers during the Civil War, this particular cap has an important place in American history as well as international history whilst remaining relevant and used today.

Kepis are distinguished by a short, usually squared visor with a stubby, cylindrical body which is most commonly stiff. This fairly familiar shape comes from my personal favorite, the shako, and finds its origins in the French military as the successor of said favorite hat. Remaining the headgear for the French military through most of the nineteenth century into the twentieth the culture surrounding it is a surprising balance between civilian charges and military issuances.

The Kepi sports a very formal and refined look which makes it unsurprising to find its origins in the showy militaries of France and less surprising still to hear of its quick transitions to civilian usage. Train conductors and other folks employed in the railway industry have made great use of it and the site of the handsome man in the Kepi taking tickets is not an unfamiliar one for many people. All these fluff and feathers make for a not entirely comfortable bit of headwear however and only somewhat improved on the comfort issues of the legendary shako.

For these reasons of comfort the kepi made more than one jump from its predecessor in the United States army and took on a slouch. Entirely shedding its stiff form the Kepi was transformed into the ‘forage cap’ and became the incredibly characteristic hat for Union and Confederate soldiers. Stylized for the new, shapeless and slumped over physique of the hat they featured insignias atop the flat crown which would face forward when worn.

Returning to the formal and stately connotations of the Kepi we can look to great leaders of men like Henri Guisan of Sweden, Hermes de Fonseca of Brazil and most famously Charles de Gaulle, a prime minister of France. The latter sported a Kepi on the fancier side of fancy with foliage embroidery along the body of his quite pushing the limits of how acceptably flashy one can be with his headwear in the twentieth century. We can take this wisdom from De Gaulle and conclude that no matter how serious and capable a man is his hat could be shooting off fireworks and it wouldn’t matter. And this message is actually an important one as the Kepi was adopted partly to get away from the over the top style of the shako and military traditions of the eighteenth century and early nineteenth century, as armies were no longer trying to make their men look eight feet tall in some height arms race to frighten each other.

Our stumpy friend the kepi can be remembered for its part in one of the bloodiest wars in history here in America between brothers, it can be remembered for its part in countless European army uniforms and on the tamer side of things its memory doubtless remains with those who recall sleepy train rides. Whether you stand up straight, stiff and strong or slouch with quaint pride I think one can say the soft speaking visual impact of the kepi shone impressively in every form it took and continues to take.

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