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    

Original Wwii Aaf Named Trench Art Cbi Hat W/ Missions Marked "flying The Hump"Wwi Ww1 Usmc Us Marine Corps Bell Crown Visor Hat Cap In Army Khaki WoolWwii Ww2 Elite Officer German Visor Hat CapOriginal Wwii Soviet Russian Colonel's Uniform Tunic Fur Hat Holster Belt GroupUnique Cdv, C.1860-62, Civil War Soldier C/ Bed Roll, "71" On Hat, Taken In NycWw2 Japanese Army Canteen Type 94 Soldier War Rare Vtg 1941 Japan Medal Pin JarWwi Canada Army Medal Uniform Pants Tunic Cap Coat 1st Battalion Heavy TransportRare Italian Wwii Field Cap Colonnello Comandante Field Artillery Rsi ? ItalyId'd Group 308 Artillery 78th Division Patch Wwi Us Army Tunic Cap Shirt Dogtag Original Ww2 British Made 506th Pir Distinctive Insignia On Dark Wool Cap.......Pre Ww2 Japanese 3rd Class Order Sacred Treasure War Medal Army Silver Gold NavyVintage Hat Stretcher, Military Collector/hat CollectorCivil War Original Kepi Hat With Eagle Buttons Blue Wool Rare No ReserveWwii Ww2 Officer Infantry German Visor Hat CapRare Ww2 Wwii Wh Air Force Luftwaffe Officer German Summer Pilot Visor Hat CapOriginal Civil War Belt - Buckle - Cap Pouch - Scabbard Soldiers Name On BeltLot Wwii Us Corsair Named Pilot Summer Cap Hat Helmet W/ Goggles, Flight Jacket Indian Wars Spanish American War - Maybe Gar Wide Brimmed Hat, Campaign HatOriginal Ww2 Airborne Em's Parachute Lined & Named Tan Summer Cap With PatchWwii Us Army 10 Cap Blasting Machine W/ Handle By Fidelity Electric CompanyWw2 Japanese Army Colonel Officer Shoulder Boards Uniform Rank Hat Belt SwordImperial German Army Prussian Hat PicklehaubOriginal Late Ww2 Radom Magazine 8 Round Cap. Authentic Wwii W/ Case German 9mmU.s. Air Force Type Hgu-55/p Flight Helmet, O2 Mask & Skull CapOriginal Ww1 Luger P.08 Magazine 8 Round Cap. Wwi Authentic 9mm German WoodNice Original Us Army Special Forces Ring 10k Gold Airborne Green Beret Civil War Infantry Officer's Broadcloth Chasseur Cap Civil War Era / Post Us Marine Shako Hat Helmet Plate Usmc EagleUsmc Marine Corp Officer Dress Blue White Green Alpha Uniform Lot 42r/35r HatRare Ww2 Wwii Wh Army Uniform Officer Infantry Infanterie German Visor Hat Cap Ww1/ww2 Australian Slouch Hat Good ConditionAuthentic Naval Ensign Officer's Bicorne Fore & Aft Beaver Skin Hat Vintage NavyOriginal Ww2 Luger P.08 Police Haenel Magazine 8 Round Cap 9mm Authentic WwiiOriginal Wwi-era United States Navy Chief Petty Officer (cpo) Visor Hat DeviceOriginal Wwii 389th Artillery 97th Division Uniform Jacket Hat Photo Group NamedVintage Marine Corps HatOriginal Ww2 P.38 Magazine 8 Round Cap Authentic Wwii Jvd Waffen German MilitaryUs Navy Uniform Seal Nswc Aor2 Nwu Type Iii Medium Long Shirt Nwt Pants Hat Rare Ww2 Wwii Wh Army Uniform Officer Infantry Infanterie German Visor Hat Cap Civil War Hat (dirty Billy's Beehive Farmer)Vtg Wwii Us Army Aaf Officers Chocolate Crusher Dress Cap Craddock Vg ConditionWwii Era Usmc Officers Dress Hat Eagle Globe Anchor Ega Infanterie Rare Ww2 Wwii Wh Officer German Summer Pilot Visor Hat CapWwii Handmade Genuine Leather Pilot,aviator,motorcycle Helmet Hat Cap L SizeOriginal Wwii Japanese Officer Uniform Visor Hat - Imperial Army - War PrizeWw2 Wwii Wh Navy Kriegsmarine Uboat Ltnt. Captain Officer German Visor Hat CapUsa Ww2 Bomber Pilot Cap Ww1 Us Army Officer Crusher Visor Hat Bancroft FlighterWw2 Japanese Wounded Badge Medal War Army Navy Wwii Wound Soldier Japan BattleBeautiful, 1902–1907, Us Army Lieut. Col. Dress Visor CapWwii Dress Tunic Military Cap Ww1 Us Army Nco Combat Crusher Visor Hat Air CorpsWw2 Royal Canadian Navy Seaman's Hat With Hmcs Tally & Carry Tin Wartime Issue Original Ww2 509th P.i.r Paratrooper Theatre Made Geronimo Cap Patch On WoolWw1 Large Brim Felt Peaked Campaign Hat W/adjustable Attached Chin StrapGerman Elite Ww 2 Nco's Old Style Infantry Waffen Crusher Cap Size 59 Us 7 3/8Viet Nam Era Hat, Fatigue Shirt, And Helmet Original Vietnam 5th Special Forces Green BeretWw2 Summer Khaki Tan Us Visor Wwi Army Air Corps Force Officer Crusher Hat CapWorld War Ii Royal Canadian Navy Sou'wester Style Oilskin Rain HatRussian Soviet Officer Hat Cap M 1943 From Ii WwUsaaf Wwii Army Air Corp Officer Pilots Visor Hat Cap With Chin Strap Rare