These days, hats are no long considered “costume de rigueur” for gentlemen, but it wasn’t so long ago when any man worth his salt wouldn’t be caught outdoors without one. Hats, not unlike shoes or any other item of menswear, first evolved from purely functional pieces and then made the familiar journey into everyday wear with its own particular rules or conventions. However, hats had one unique use in contrast to the others – they also were used to distinguish the wearer in terms of status, occupation and even political affiliation.
The Safari Hat is no exception. Also known as the Pith Helmet or the Sola Topee, this hat originated in tropical British colonies as part of the military uniform. It has evolved significantly in the last 200 years, and now the Safari Hat is most frequently worn as a sun hat on — you guessed it — safari or in other hot climates.
Let’s take a quick look at the intriguing history of the Safari Hat.
Evolution of the Safari Hat
The Pith helmet or Sola Topee was first made in the Indian subcontinent sometime in the 1800s. It got its name from the fact that it was made out of the pith, the soft tissue found inside of the trunk of the Sola tree, a species native to India. Apart from being made out of pith, its other features included peaks (small brims) in the front and rear to provide shade from the sun, a cloth covering (initially white), holes for ventilation, and a chin strap to hold it firmly in place.
By 1870, the Sola Topee came to be used by various European militaries (though it eventually became synonymous with the British) in their tropical colonies including Africa and India. These military-issue Sola Topees were often decorated with plumes and spikes. The first major change occurred during the Anglo – Zulu war, when British soldiers found that the white cloth covering of their helmets made them rather conspicuous targets. They started staining them with tea. The resulting khaki-colored helmets then became standard issue.
By the 1930s, the Sola Topee made its transition into civilian life as a sun hat. European powers took the dangers of the sun very seriously in their colonies, and the hat was very often worn indoors in case the sun was able to penetrate the roof, such was their paranoia. The civilian Sola Topee differed from the military design in that it had a full round brim sloping gently downwards and running all across the helmet, whereas the military style was more conical in shape. The military spike gave way to a round button-like shape with four holes where it met the crown for better ventilation. A cloth headband, ventilation holes, and a chin strap were retained from the military design, although the chin strap was typically looped over the front of the brim.
Both khaki and white colors were available to civilians. An optional part was a ‘neck curtain’ made of fabric hanging from the back of the helmet to provide additional protection for the back of the neck. The Sola Topee was the headgear of choice when outdoors and especially while on safari in both India and Africa.
The Sola Topee also made its way to the Americas where it was used widely in the subtropics. Teddy Roosevelt was probably the Pith Helmet’s most famous American ambassador, and he is often pictured wearing one on safari and during his military campaigns.
Slowly over time the Sola Topee began to be made out of cork rather than pith, but apart from that the design has remained unchanged until the present day. It was also retained by the militaries up to the end of the Second World War. This was not restricted only to the British; the Afrika Korps had their own version, as did the French in Vietnam.
Over time the Pith Helmet was replaced by the slouch hat in colonial Africa. The slouch hat is a wide-brimmed felt hat with one side of the brim pinned to the crown. During the time of the Boer War there was a shortage of Sola Topees and the slouch hat was adopted by the British Army. It is probably due to this shortage that the slouch hat began to replace the Sola topee even in civilian life in Africa. Very often the brim of the civilian version would not be pinned to the crown.
Even though the slouch hat in different variations has been worn by many nations across the globe, it was most notably adopted in Australia. Worn by the Australian military since the late 1800s, it’s still part of the modern military uniform.
The 1940s and 1950s were the heydays of the African safari and by then the slouch hat had completely replaced the Sola Topee and had become de rigeur. However, the professional hunters of Africa decided that they could do with a bit of Italian flair and started wearing, almost as a uniform, felt hats made by the Italian firm of Borsalino. Very soon their wealthy clients started copying them and a new trend was started. Borsalino was well known as a manufacturer of felt fedoras but very soon their Safari Hat also achieved cult status. The Borsalino safari hat is even credited with saving the life of a professional hunter named Stan Lawrence Brown during an elephant attack! Borsalino continues to make the safari hat today.
How To Wear a Safari Hat
Since the safari hat is no longer a mainstream hat, it’s not as easy to wear relative to a fedora, for example. Combined incorrectly, a safari hat can give an outfit an unintentional cartoonish look since it makes a serious statement. However, in the right circumstances, here are a few tips on how to wear a safari hat with panache:
- A safari hat is intended to be worn as a hot-weather accessory, so wear it on hot days when sun protection is a must and you will be out of doors for the majority of the day. This, of course, includes safaris, desert destinations, and hot tropical locations.
- Pair a safari hat with other active warm weather clothes, such as shorts and safari khakis, or if you are so bold, pair it with summer blazers and linen.
- Treat each style of safari hat differently — the felt safari hat has a more versatile shape that can be worn more often, while the slouch hat and the pith helmet have very distinct looks.
- For vintage lovers, a pith helmet will absolutely add a historical touch to your classic summer outfits.
Safari Hat Characteristics & Buying Guide
The modern equivalent of the Pith Helmet can be seen on our television screens worn by an assortment of wildlife guides, tourists to African game parks, nature show hosts, and television adventurers. These days, the “Safari Hat” is just as likely to be interpreted as one of the traditional safari shapes as it is “any hat worn on safari,” which could mean any number of modern hat iterations. For our purposes, we will stick with the traditional shapes that encompass the term “Safari Hat” — the Pith Helmet, the felt safari hat and the slouch hat.
The Pith Helmet
The modern iteration of the Pith Helmet features these characteristics:
- Rounded, down-slanting brim
- Decorative chin strap that is typically stretched over the front brim
- Top “button”
- Side hole vents
- White, khaki or green color
- Made of cork or pith covered in cotton twill
The Village Hat Shop offers a range of Pith Helmets, and some of them are remarkably still hand-made in India out of real pith! They offer an Indian Pith Helmet version, a French Pith Helmet version, and a stiffened straw Pith Helmet version. The French variation has a shallower crown that reflects the French style worn in their colony in Vietnam.
Stiffened straw hats come in the shape of a Pith Helmet, and while they are not traditional, they are lighter and the loose straw weave offers nice ventilation.
The Felt Safari Hat
The characteristics of the felt safari hat have undergone many changes during its long evolution, however, the modern safari hat (as it is described and known today) has the following characteristics:
- Fedora shape
- Made of brushed felt
- Unlined inside
- Fabric sweatband
- Rounded, medium-wide brim
- Leather hat band
- Top crease
- Dents or pinch on either side extending to half the length of the hat
- Shades of khaki and green
Borsalino, a heritage Italian hat maker, makes a beautiful felt safari hat.
The Slouch Hat
This style of hat is most commonly associated with Australia, and it has become a national symbol. It is often called the Australian Slouch Hat by retailers. Originally constructed of fur felt, it was prized for its durability. Here’s what to look for:
- Felted fur construction
- Side clip to pin one side up, if desired
- Pleated hatband
- Khaki and green colors
Akubra is a famous family-owned Australian hat maker that has been producing the slouch hat since it became standard military issue at the turn of the century. They still offer real felted fur slouch hats today. Check out Akubra’s felted fur slouch hat here.
One Last Idea
If you’ve read this whole article and aren’t convinced there is a place in your wardrobe for a pith helmet, there is one other use to consider. For the sartorial collector, a pith helmet makes an excellent decoration and conversation starter for classic fashion lovers. The next time you see a road-weary pith helmet at a flea market, consider putting it on your wall!
What do you think about Safari hats? Would you wear one?
This article was written by Vikram Nanjappa & Sven Raphael Schneider