Looking at Hats Part 1: The Pith Helmet

Humans as we know them have always had heads, as did their ancestors. For an incredibly long time however apart from hair they were bare, entirely void of any meaningful cover. We might not entirely appreciate the impact of headwear on the history of man today as they’ve fallen rather out of fashion relative to the past few decades; however they’ve been with us since before the Indus Valley hosted its milestone inhabitants and have faithfully stayed in many forms since. Consequential of this long and shifty history hats, helmets and hoods have taken countless odd and obscure shapes. One of these notable shapes is known as the pith helmet.
The pith helmet will be known to many as a safari helmet and to fewer as the helmet belonging to British soldiers during the Anglo Zulu War, but it is so much more as well. Originally made of pith, the fleshy innards of some plants namely the Aeschynomene aspera or sola plant found in wet areas across central to southern Asia. Following a need to be lightweight the helmets would come to be constructed of cork for the extra strength. This lightweight design with ventilation holes along the crown was suitably designed to be worn in tropical regions by Europeans with characteristically sensitive skin. Extending beyond military, utilitarian ideas citizens would come to adopt it and it would become a notable part of imperial culture.
No one likes skin cancer and this has been the case for as long as we’ve known about it, which we did in the days of Western imperialism. Medicine at the time believed that the faintest exposure to direct sunlight in the tropics would cause a white man to get skin cancer and thus a massive demand for these sun helmets grew suddenly. With a long bill on the front and back with shorter ones on the sides the pith helmet was a perfect, durable bit of gear for the vulnerable European epidermis. While massive militaries of the states with troops in the tropics adopted this helmet civilians did as well and they became a fashion statement, coming in khaki and white to be paired with rugged bush jackets among other pieces of tropical gear. The negative connotations of this helmet however spread further than some unfashionable man mixing his khaki with his green.
As was mentioned earlier the British during the Anglo Zulu War wore them, and this war was certainly not a splendid little one. The morals of imperialism are questioned ferociously as we progress as societies in the West and this war, featuring incredibly bloody battles like the one at Roarke’s Drift could paint this white helmet rather red. Or, being the signature headwear of explorers notable for mistreated their native employees like Sir Henry Morton Stanley the helmet gets few redemptions there.
Despite the checkered past of notable wearers of the pith helmet it is no doubt a stylish and characteristic helmet worthy of its iconic place in history. It is an integral remnant of imperial culture and the zealous spirit of explorers. It is a grim reminder of inhuman deeds and it is a swell hat to block the Sun for a stroll on a beach. However one remembers it the pith helmet shall indeed be remembered.

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