Prior to the 19th century, production capabilities were limited, which meant that things like military headgear, which were issued to thousands of troops, often had to serve both practical and decorative purposes. The tricorn, or tricorne, hat is probably the most famous example of this sort of double-duty chapeau. Worn during the 18th century, these triangular-shaped hats had large brims pinned up on either side of the head, as well as one in the back, directing rainfall away from the face and over the wearer’s shoulders. Since civilians also wore tricorn hats, most militaries applied an identifying cockade, or national crest, on the front. As in many eras, the French became military headgear trendsetters, creating highly embellished tricorn styles featuring elaborate designs in gold, lace, and fur.

The most common hat style of the American Civil War, the forage cap or kepi, was also adopted from the French. Kepis were made with flat-topped cylindrical crowns, and typically fashioned from dark wool with a black leather visor and chinstrap. Navy-blue Union caps were often decorated with a crossed sword or golden bugle emblem, as well as the individual owner’s regiment number. Confederate kepis only differed in their color, which varied from grey to yellow to red. Officer “slouch hats” were another familiar style during the Civil War, and were crafted with a wide circular brim which was lined with braided gold cord and sometimes attached to the crown on one side.

Shortly thereafter, the beret was made popular by the French Chasseurs Alpins, or Alpine mountain troops. This group initiated the association of berets with elite military units, though the hats were originally chosen for their versatility in inclement, high-altitude weather. Indeed, the Chasseurs Alpins wore berets because they provided a water-resistant, cold-weather head covering that was also light and easy to pack.

Military hats and caps of the 20th century generally fall into two categories: utility pieces, worn during combat or when working, and dress caps, which are part of a soldier’s formal uniform. Utility gear serves a functional purpose, protecting the wearer from harsh outdoor environments, while formal headpieces are essentially ornaments for the rest of a ceremonial outfit. Though troops might be issued many utility items for specific situations, soldier’s dress caps, featuring division, rank, and award insignia, were often better preserved since they were used less frequently.

A very popular headpiece among collectors is the peaked visor cap worn by members of the Third Reich military, which evolved from a similar style worn by German officers during World War I. These hats were issued as part of Germany’s formal dress uniforms, with each branch of the military identified by its own unique color and insignia combination. Typical designs, like the gray-and-navy medical officer caps, were decorated with an eagle carrying a swastika above an aluminum cockade, wreath, and braided chinstrap. Other German hats like the Waffen SS general caps featured a metal skull emblem. Japanese dress caps from World War II are similar in design to their German counterparts, but were made from khaki wool with red bands and piping, as well as a brass star symbol in front.

For American forces, dress caps came in a similar peaked-visor form, with white for navy troops, olive for members of the army, and blue for air forces. Specialized utility headgear became commonplace for the American military during World War II, most of which were made from light cotton or canvas, occasionally with patches to denote the branch or unit division. The most recognized hat of this style is possibly the white naval cap with its rounded crown and upturned brim, which was first adopted more than 50 years earlier.

Other distinctive caps from World War II include the Belgian enlisted corps’ side caps, made from khaki wool with a single tassel and central peak, designed to fold flat when not...

During the Vietnam War, American troops were issued generic utility hats with their fatigues, which resembled baseball caps made from olive-green cotton, as well as tropical “boonie” hats. These hot-weather hats were made with a fully-encircling brim to block sun, but were discontinued by 1971 because their floppy form didn't project the buttoned-down look that the military aspired to for its enlisted men. Vietnam also helped to establish the popularity of the Green Berets, a secretive Army Special Forces Unit, known as much for their deeds as their distinctively colored headgear.

About our sources | Got something to add?

▼ Expand to read the full article ▼

Best of the Web (“Hall of Fame”)

Des Chapeaux

Des Chapeaux

A French tribute to women's hats and other headwear from the 1940s... primarily magazine images, with some commenta… [read review or visit site]

This resource for historic arms and armour collectors provides exhaustive information on modern reproductions (cust… [read review or visit site]

American Hatpin Society

American Hatpin Society

Who knew there was so much to hatpin collecting? This site is all about great hatpin images - from recent hatpin co… [read review or visit site]

The Civil War

The Civil War

Paul McWhorter’s amazing reference site tells the story of the Civil War through high resolution scans of Harpers… [read review or visit site]

Mikes Tanks

Mikes Tanks

Mike Seeber’s extensive collection of over 500 diecast tanks and military vehicles, dating back to WWII. Browse b… [read review or visit site]

Clubs & Associations

Most watched eBay auctions    

Named Wwi Us Navy Officer's Aviation Green Uniform With Visor Hat & WingsUsa Us Military Combat Helmet Ww Ii Ww 2 Original Paint Militaria Army Gear HatU.s.1968 Vietnam Jungle Boonie Hat "fuzz-barb" Very Scarce Named 509thparachute Infantry Beret Flash From Noted Author-historian CollectionWwi Usmc White Top Visor Hat-milwaukee Maker Marked Dress Blues?Old Ww2 Usaf Khaki Crusher Us Visor Wwi Army Air Corps Officer Named Hat Tan Cap1914 - 1916 Ww1 Royal Flying Corps Rfc Side Cap W/ Rfc Buttons & Badge AviationAntique Original Gar Civil War Black Slouch Hat With Officers Infantry WreathWwii German Infantry Soldiers Aluminum Canteen & Cover W/ Bakelite Cap Smm13Wwii Us Army Air Force Aaf Leather Flight Hat A-11 An 6530 Goggles Ear PhonesAntique Original Civil War Black Slouch Hat With Officers Infantry WreathVintage Ww1 Us Army Air Corps Visor Hat Cap Wwii Antique Military Officer EstateWw2 Japanese Naval Brigade's Hat.1944 Ueno Akinaga.Wwii Khaki Tan Usa Visor Wwi Army Air Corps Officer Bomber Fighter Pilot Hat Cap Vintage U.s. Civil War Uniform Wool HatEstonian Volunteer Visor Hat1951 Usaf Us Air Force General Officer Bullion Cap Hat Flight Ace 5 Star & BadgeWwii Us Officer's Visor Khaki Summer Crusher Style Tan Hat Army Air Corps Cap 7Australian Ww1trench Art - Officer's Cap Shell, With Commonwealth Forces Badge. Rare Vietnam War Us Army/usaf Pilot Reversible Survival Life Raft Boonie Sun HatWwii Australian Army Military Forces Bush Cap Bardsley Wool Hat & Insignia BadgeWw2 German Officers Visor Cap,army WehrmachtOrig Indian War Era U.s. Scouts M1872 Eagle Hat InsigniaOriginal Civil War Irish Brigade Harp Hat InsigniaJapanese Medal Set Rising Sun Badge Ww2 Army Japan Navy Pin Cap Uniform Ship WarUsmc Eagle Globe Anchor Wwi Enlisted Service Hat Device Ega EmblemItalian General's Field Cap, With All Insignia - NamedEarly Ww2 Walther Ppk Magazine 7 Round Cap. 7.65mm .32 Caliber Wwii GermanOrig Wwii White Officer Visor Hat - Sterling Silver Insignia W / CoverOriginal Wwii Uso Camp Shows Entertainer Od Us Army Wac Style Cap Hat Sz 23Us Army Ww1 Aviation Army Wool Combat Uniform Vtg Coat Jacket / Hat / Pants RareWwii British Royal Navy Officer's Visor CapOriginal Large U.s. Army Officer Wool Overseas Garrison Cap Theater Made 7 3/8 +100% Original German Wwii- Elite Unit M43 Cap "einheitsfeldmutze"Named Ww2 Large Army Group.hat,patches,pouches,mess Kit,canteen,belt,documents +Old German Ww2 Camo Cap Original MaterialRare Original Wwii 1940's British Army Royal Marines Para's Wool Balaclava HatOriginal Civil War 1st Ny Irish Brigade Shamrock Hat Insignia Ww2 Tank Destroyer Uniform & Hat Named To "lt. Vernon F. RasmussonRare Large Wwii Usmc Hat Ega Badge Pin Set Sterling Rolled Gold 10k With Box H&hWwii Ww2 German Kriegsmarine U-boat Cap U-57 U2513 U552 Erich Topp Visor Hat Wwii U.s. Army Pilot Flighter Hat By BancroftWwi Poster This Device On Hat Or Helmet Means U.s. MarinesOrig Indian War Era " Uss " U.s. Scouts Cross Arrows Hat InsigniaOriginal Wwii 1940's British Army Named Side Cap. Length 10.5". Large Size 7.5 Wwi Us Army Campaign Dough Boy Military Hat With Red Acorns & Us BadgeMess Dress Officer Uniform Usaf Us Air Force Command Pilot Wings Lt Colonel CapCivil War Confederate Veterans? Kepi Hat, Circa 1870-90 Per AppraisalVtg 1980s Addro Rhodesian Camo Boonie Hat Bush Cap Camouflage RareWwii German M24 Potato Masher Grenade Zink Cap + Screw Set - War RelicAuthentic Ww2 Us Army Coastal Artillery Officers Complete Uniform Hat Rare MedalUsn Us Navy Destroyer Uss U.s.s. Montgomery Cap Hat Ribbon Tally Pearl HarborWwii Ww2 Elite Officer German Visor Hat CapRare Wwi Usn Us Navy U.s.n. Rifle Range Cap Hat Ribbon Tally Great LakesCivil War Movie Hat Worn In The Movie GettysburgSuperb Wwii Us Navy Named Submariners Crackerjack Uniform Top, Trousers & HatArisaka Type 38 Bent Handle Bolt With Extractor Nice Safety CapRepro Rhodesian Camo Cap100% Original German Wwii- Elite Winter CapOriginal Ww2 British Officer's Field Beret With Badge - Sz 7 3/8"