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    

Exceptional Wwii Usmc 4-star General's Hat/cap-guadalcanal Navy Cross RecipientWwii Fascist Italian Mvsn Militia Fez Hat-beautiful-guaranteed Original Fantastic - Orig Ucv - Confederate Veteran's " Beaver Blend" Gray Hat -in BoxVery Rare German Large Death Head Hassars Hat- Franco-prussian War -1870Australian Ww2 Raaf Air Force Lasicas Leather Aviators Flying Helmet Hat C1942Antique Russian Imperial Pavlovsky Grenadier Miter Hat Helmet (sword Dagger)Ww2 Canadian 3rd Div At/rca Great Coat W/helmet & Beret - Named SoldierAntique Rare French Napoleonic Hussar Officer's Shako Quiver Hat HelmetWw1 Trench Art German Pickelhaube Hat/helmet Albert Watch Chain Fob Australian Lighthorse Anzac Ww1 Army Military Slouch HatOriginal Wwii U.s. Army Nurse Cream Wool Service Cap Wac Related - Size 22Antique Rare French Napoleonic Or Later Bugler's Shako Quiver Hat HelmetWwii Us Army Air Corps Hat Wwi Dress Crusher Cap Military Officer Estate VisorRare Ww2 Japanese Navy Medical Officer Shoulder Boards Epaulettes Medal Wwii CapWwii Usmc Woman Named Summer Uniform & CapLarge Lot Civil War Wwi Ii Leather Goods Holster Belt Hat Canteen BridleWw2 Usmc Medal Bar, Ny Mexican Campaign, Flying Cross Numbered Lot Officer CapAntique English Uhlan Lancer's Helmet Hat 19th Century To Ww I (sword Dagger)Rare: "sheridan Style" Civil War Officers HatWw1 Luger P.08 Magazine 9mm Wwi Original German Military Numbered 7 Round Cap.1902 Campaign Hat-burgessWw2 Us Navy Officer Visor Hat Cap Commander Named Big Size BancroftWw1 German "pork Pie" Feldmutze Soft Field Cap EstateUs Vietnam War Cavalry Stetson Air Cavalry Hat Cavalry Scarf Airmobile AscotOriginal Civil War Union Gar Kepi Hat Cap W/ Gold Braid & ButtonsWwii 1940s A-11 Flight Cap & Mask Army Air Force LargeMiniature Ww1 Trench Art Officers Cap Made From A 1914 PennyWwii Us Navy W.a.v.e. Hat - Woman's Enlisted Blue & White Cotton Twill (small)Vietnam 173rd Airborne Ranger Beret. Co.n/75th RangersLarge Original Wwii U.s. Army Wac Khaki Cotton Hobby Hat - Service Cap 22 1/2Ww2 Japanese Naval Association Badge Medal Wwii Navy Pin Vtg Anchor Ship AntiqueOld Usaf Ww2 Us Army Military Air Force Pilot Officer Estate Wool Visor Cap HatWwii Us 6th Army Ike Jacket Uniform Visor Hat Dog Tags 136th Infantry Vet BuyRare!!-- Wwi Us Army Navy Officer's Uniform Hat !!Wwii Military Officer Estate Us Army Air Corps Dress Hat Fur Felt Wool Visor CapVietnam War Tiger Stripe Bush Hat Ww2 Geman Military Officers Visor Cap Authentic Craft International Black Hat America Sniper Chris KyleWw1 Nurse Uniform With Hat Blouse,dress,belt,and Apron..original.Green Dominant Erdl Boonie Hat 1968 7 1/8 Real Size Very Clean !Minty! Usaf Air Force Luxenberg General Officer's Blue Dress Visor Hat Cap 7 1/2Ww2 German Kriegsmarine HatWwii The Equipment Of Army Soldier Canteen Type94 Otu, Messtin, Duffle Bag, CapAirborne Troop Carrier Tailor Made Ike Jacket, Cap, Trousers, Tie & Bs DocumentWw2 Japanese Era, Navy Garments,uniform,hat,capt Boards,spats, & More....marked!Wwii Aaf Us Army Officers Od Gabardine Crusher Cap W/eagle DeviceVintage Us Navy Captain Officers Hat Bancroft Cap Hat Dental Corps Insignia NrOfficer's Cap Ww2 Military Police Feldgen Armerie Polizie Wwii-era Us Coast Guard Visor Hat, Exc.Wwii U.s. Army Olive Drab Wool Officer's Hat Excellent No Holes Size 7 1/4Vietnam War Advisor's Bush HatVietnam War Spot Camo Bush HatGebirgsjaeger Cap Made By Sm WholesaleBrass Labelled Eley 250 Percussion Cap TinLincolnshire Regiment Original Officers Cap And Collar Badges.Chris Kyle Authentic Discontinued Craft International Hat Black Baseball CapPre Wwii Russian M1927 Visor Cap Hat-turkestan Cavalry UnitAustralian Army E Troop Sasr Ball Cap . Mint ConditionRare Vintage Welders American Bridge Hard Hat No Res Ironworkers Lanyard ReddotOriginal Cut-edge Ww2 Airborne Glider Officer Cap Patch