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What is a Pith Helmet?

Malcolm Tatum
Updated May 17, 2024
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Sometimes referred to as a topi or solar topee, the pith helmet has a long history as both fashion and as part of military wear. Dating from the middle of the 19th century, the helmet was first considered to be an essential part of military garb in tropical areas and later became an element in more formal military dress. Today, the pith helmet is still around, serving as part of the uniform for several professions as well as being worn for fun.

Pith helmets were first developed for use by military personnel who were stationed in the tropics of Africa and South America. To some degree, the earliest helmet was patterned after a traditional head covering used in the Philippines. Known as a salacot, the device served as an effective protection from the sun. The helmet was constructed with the use of pith or cork, which provided a light frame for the headwear. Often, the frame was covered with a sheer white fabric that also helped to repel the sun’s rays.

Over time, the design for the pith helmet was refined to provide greater protection in different situations. British troops who had adopted the pith helmet as part of the uniform worn at the battlefront began to dye the cloth covers with tea, which helped them blend in with local foliage in tropical areas. Over time, camouflage versions emerged when blending into the surrounding terrain was considered essential. As a sun helmet, it continued to be popular wear for anyone exploring the wilds of the jungle, or living in tropical areas.

The pith helmet also emerged as a sartorial element during the 20th century. Along toward the middle of the century, children and teenagers became fascinated with them, partially owing to the new medium of television. Many of the early action heroes in the new medium wore pith helmets during their adventures. Fans who wanted to emulate their heroes would often adopt simple plastic versions of the helmet during play.

Today, the helmet is still included in the military garb of many countries, as well as considered a practical element of living in a tropical area. In the United States, the headgear has become a standard element in the uniform for postal workers in many parts of the country. These helmets may be purchased at many sporting goods stores, and today come in a wide variety of colors.

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Malcolm Tatum
By Malcolm Tatum
Malcolm Tatum, a former teleconferencing industry professional, followed his passion for trivia, research, and writing to become a full-time freelance writer. He has contributed articles to a variety of print and online publications, including WiseGeek, and his work has also been featured in poetry collections, devotional anthologies, and newspapers. When not writing, Malcolm enjoys collecting vinyl records, following minor league baseball, and cycling.
Discussion Comments
By Qohe1et — On Dec 24, 2010

The sun helmet of the Thai royal army is a form of Pith Helmet which still includes the Pickelhaube. The Thai army made a conscious effort early on to incorporate British and German garb in its military.

By FitzMaurice — On Dec 22, 2010

The Pith Helmet is believed to have been influenced by the earlier German helmets, the Pickelhaube, which were noticeable due to the distinctive spike on the top. Pith Helmets have a similar design, minus the spike, and came to be made with a lighter substance for hot climates. Afrikaners settling in South Africa would have used this like a Western American would use a cowboy hat.

Malcolm Tatum
Malcolm Tatum
Malcolm Tatum, a former teleconferencing industry professional, followed his passion for trivia, research, and writing...
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