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]

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]

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]

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    

Original Antique 1854 Pat. French Shako Hat Helmet Uniform 2nd Empire NapoleonRare Orig Civil War Confederate Veteran (ucv) Gray Reunion Hat With Cord - ExcUs Wwi Ww2 Officer Visor Cap Dress Army Uniform Jacket Air Corp Force Combat HatWwii German Heer Wehrmacht Tropical Dak M41 CapOriginal Wwii U.s. Army Air Corp Flighter By Bancroft Crusher Cap Hat Usaaf TanWw2 Original Cap Altylery Mol!!!!3rd Marine Division 1st Sergeant Usmc Ww2 Coat, Cap, Ribbons Shooting BadgeVietnam War, U.s. Special Forces Green Beret 5th Sfg(a)Wwii Luxemberg Usaaf Summer Khaki Light Wool Crusher Visor Cap Hat, NamedWw2 Lufwaffe General's Dress Hat W/ Complete Insignia ExcellentSs Sleeve Or Beret EagleWw2 Japanese Army Officer's Dress Hat Flat Top Named Mr. 丸x ExcellentWwi Cef Canadian Expeditionary Forces Calgary Regiment Brass Hat Uniform BadgeJapanese Wwii Cap. Well Marked! 1941 Royal Doulton Union Jack Winstion Churchill Bulldog W/ Trinity Cap & Cigar19th Century Military Bicorn Hat Farm Fresh As FoundWwi Us Army Officer's Campaign Hat, StetsonWw2 Japanese Navy Officers Visor Hat Rare Original G.a.r. Grand Army Of The Republic Hat Wreath PinGuernsey: 2009 £5, Warships - 1st Ark Royal .925 Sil Proof, Cap, Cert, Top GradeWwii / Ww2 British Army, Black Beret, Dated 1944, British Armored Brigade, Wwii Orig French Ww1 Kepi Visor Cap 11 Rgt Shako Mutze Kappi Not German кепи HelmetGuernsey: 2008 £5, Raf "schneider Trophy" .925 Silver Proof + Cap - Top GradeM1 Garand Springfield Numbered Elevation Cap Gas TrapMp44 Butt Stock Extension Attaching Cap Hardware Wwii German Luftwaffe M43 Flight Cap Hat, 1943.Ww2 Australian Slouch Hat - Static Heavy Aa Batteries And HqUs Navy C 1945 Ww2 Us Officer's Bullion Eagle Visor Cap Annapolis Naval Ny WwiiRare Ww2 Us Army Air Force B-14 Enlisted Men's Flight Jacket, Shirt And CapUniform Visor Cap Gala Or Parade General Of Argentine Army 1970/200019th C Antique Full Dress American Fore Aft Hat Epaulettes In Jappaned Case U.s.Wwii Usaac Crusher Cap "flighter" Sz7Original Us Army 10 Cap Blasting MachineOriginal Kc Welsh Lord Lieutenants Cap & Photo Lord Harlech & Hm Queen ElizabethCdv, Civil War Captain John A. Lynch *signed* 26th Massachusetts, Feathered HatWw2 Australian 48th Battalion The Torrens Regiment Hat / Collar Set 1930-42Uniform Rsk Krajina Special Forces Dragan Knindze Croatia War Knin Beret EmblemReproduced Ww2 Manchuria Independence Garrison HatVtg Air Corps Aaf Knox Crusher Officer's Cap Hat Flight Pilot Usaf Force NamedVintage Reproduction U.s. 7th Cavalry D Company Hat W/ Insignia ~nice~Tim Hortons Original Issue Kandahar Afganistan Camo Ball CapVtg Wwii Us Army Military Rare Warrant Officer's True Crusher Visor Cap Hat 7Hungarian Ww2 Officers Field Cap Front Issue Australian Army 2 Cdo Commando D Coy Tactical Mens Baseball Ripstop Mesh Cap Wwi Usmc Enlisted Foul Weather HatTiger Stripe Camo Recce Hat Sz 7 3/4 Devgru37j Wwi Wwii Original Us Army 10 Cap Blasting MachineU.c.v. Hat WreathFrench Army, Revolutionary War Era 1760s-1800 Cocked Hat, Tricorn, Sz 7 1/4 A+Ww2 Us Army Officers Uniform Visor Hat Service Cap Size 7 1/4Ww2 Us Navy Officers Uniform Visor Hat Or Combination Cap Size 7 1/4Nos/m-29 Weasel Radiator CapWw2 Royal Navy Hms Jupiter Black Top Boarding Cap & Sewing Kit J Watson 'mpk'Green Beret 10.brdska Brigada (bosnian Army 1992-1995) - Arbih - Rare !2 Wwii Military Garrison Caps Summer & Winner 7 1/4Military Style Items - Pack, Hat, Replica Powder Flask, Photo Album - LotUsn Us Navy Anchor Pins Military Collectable Usa 4 Pins- Sterling Hat Vietnam War Svn Arvn Ranger Beret W/ Unusual Ranger Badge100% OriginalVietnam War Svn Arvn Ranger Airborne Red/maroon Beret 100% OriginalWwii Original U.s. Aaf Officer's Crusher Crush Cap, Khaki, Pilot, Aircrew