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What is a Shako?

By C. K. Lanz
Updated May 17, 2024
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The shako is a tall military dress hat made of felt or cloth and shaped like a cylinder that is often adorned with a metal badge or plate in front, braids and a pompom or feather on top. This style of hat is sometimes tapered at the top to form a cone and may be worn by drum corps and marching bands in addition to soldiers and military commanders.

The term shako is thought to be of Hungarian origin and the hat was first worn as part of Hungarian hussar’s or light cavalry’s 18th century uniform before being adopted by many other armies including France, Russia, Spain, Britain, Germany, Belgium, Denmark, Mexico, Portugal, Japan, Romania and Italy among others.

The Hungarian hussar’s uniform included the shako as early as the Napoleonic Wars in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. The hussars were cavalrymen who rode agile horses and wore colorfully distinctive uniforms that included a short jacket with gold braids called a dolman, colored pants, high riding boots and the shako. Although this style of headgear was esthetically impressive, it proved impractical during battle since it did not effectively protect the wearer from the elements or combat injury. As a result, the shako eventually became part of parade rather than battle dress.

In addition to hussars, grenadiers or soldiers selected and trained to throw grenades were also known to have worn shakos. Grenadiers were organized into special companies by the middle of the 17th century and since accidental injury and death were common, these soldiers required certain courage. As a result of the increased risk, a grenadier was given special privileges, a higher salary and wore an elegant battle uniform that included the shako.

Each army wore its own version of the shako with a unique height, trim and colors. The Spanish army adopted a very low style called a “ros” that was lower in back than in the front and made with black leather and gray felt. The Russian Imperial Guard’s shakos were very tall and more elaborate with gold decoration, braids and often a long feather or large pompom on top. Decoration colors distinguished different companies.

In Europe, the United States, various Latin American nations, India and Russia the shako is still worn by specific regiments, military cadets and armies as part of the ceremonial uniform. Some colleges, high schools and the national police academy in the Philippines have also adopted the shako for ceremonial occasions. American civilian drum corps and marching bands such as the University of Notre Dame’s Kilted Irish Guard may also wear elaborately decorated shakos during parades and other exhibitions.

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