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    

Civil War Infantry Forage Cap, Kepi, HatWw1 Ww2 Cef Canadian Lincoln & Welland Regiment Tunic Battle Dress W/ Beret RareAntique Vintage Victorian Cameronians Scottish Rifles Shako 1899 Helmet Hat Rogue American Seal Sniper Chris Kyle Limited Edition Aor1 Desert Ballcap HatWw2 Raf Officers Cap/hat Kings Crown C.1944/45Ww2 Us Army Nurse Blue Uniform W/ Overcoat, Brim Cap, Garrison Cap & ScarfGreen Beret, 5th Special Forces Group (abn), VietnamWwii Italian Mvsn Fascist Militia Officer General Fez Hat Cap-beautiful!-rare!!Usaf Us Air Force Command General Officer Cap Hat Jcs Joint Chief Staff W EagleRare -us Marine Corps- Vintage Wwii Fighter Pilot Officers Dress Uniform Hat/capOriginal Vietnam Era 6th Special Forces Green Beret Dsa Date 1967 Great Shape Wwii Us Army Military Officer Estate Fur Felt Dress Hat Visor Crusher Cap NamedWw2 Us Army Air Force Corps Dress Hat - Chocolate Gabardine Crusher Visor Cap NrCivil War Navy Hat Vtg Ww Ii U.s. Marine Corps Wool Uniform Dress Jacket 3l Hat Cap (7 1/8") M 1943Italian Fascist Royal Army Artillery Visor Hat Cap Mvsn Pnf Ww2Uniform Hat - Camo Painted Wwi Helmet, 42nd Division - 100% OriginalAntique Late Civil War / Early Indian War Kepi Hat W/eagle ButtonsUs Navy Diver Hard Hat Morse Knife With Brass ScabbardMilitary Wwii Us Marine Corps Officer Hat With Pin Medal Made By Hilborn HanbrOriginal: Seaforth Highlanders Regiment Sporran Badge - Scottish Cap Lapel "u.s.s." Indian Scout Hat & Collar Insignia-badge-pin-matched-pr-bronzeLowe Alpine Us Army Special Forces Training Green Beret Sof Ruck Pack BackpackM1 M2 Carbine Disconnect Lever, Selector, 9 Spring, Disconnector Cap And SpringRare Indian Scout Hat Wild West Collectible Cool Indian WarsWw2 Officer Usaaf Pilot Hat Cap Flighter Bancroft Named Visor Strap 533 Sq. 381Named Us Officer Chaplain Tunic Served 1 Year Overseas With Hat, Medals, BeltWw1 Marine Ega Service Cap Hat Insignia Badge Type Worn In France Usmc Mint!Ww2 Wwii Navy Kriegsmarine U-boot U-boat Uboat Captain Erich Topp U552 Visor HatWwii Us Navy, Usn, Waves, Women's Sweater And Garrison Hat, Scarce!Tropical Hat For General Mvsn Italy Wwii Replica Civil War Usa Infantry Officer's Hardee Hat For Reenactors And Others63rd Halifax Rifles -cap Or Pouch BadgeVintage Military Raf Officers Cap Hat Austin Reed LondonGerman Ww2 Garrison CapWwii U.s Air Force Officer Bomber Pilot True Crusher Cap Hat AafItalian Fascist Colonel In Chief Royal Army Engineers Side Hat Cap Mvsn Pnf Ww2Vintage Original Engineer Demolition Blasting Machine 10 Cap Cil Ww2 1943 Australian Army Slouch Hat 7 1/8 Fur Felt Sydney Bush Digger 215 Gear Aor1 / Desert Digital Camo Operators Hat Navy Seal Nsw Lbt Eagle Crye Ww1 Luger P.08 Magazine 9mm Original 7 Round Cap. Wwi German Military UnmarkedOriginal Polish Military CapWw 2 Japanese HatOriginal Kepi / Forage Cap Chin Strap W Buttons- Mint Private PurchaseRevolutionary War Style Tricorn 1890's Hat Probably Womens Antique Military Survival Kit Reversible Sun Hat Orange/od Green, Usaf,, UnusedCivil War Cavalry Officers Hat InsigniaNamed Us Army Vietnam Officer Visor Cap Dress Hat Luxenberg Boxed Scrambled EggsWw2 Military Bomber Gunner Nco Enlisted Us Army Air Force Crusher Visor Cap HatWw2 War Worn Visor Cap Crusher "the Flight Weight" Green Wool Killer Look !Ww1 Wwi German 100 Percent Original Visor Hat Ww2 Rare Cap Helmet NamedWwii German Zeiss 10x50 Binoculars With Case And Leather Benutzer CapRare-hard To Find Indian Wars Hat Insignia " Usip " -united States Indian PoliceNamed Us Army Vietnam War Colonel Visor Cap Military Dress Blues Hat LuxenbergUniform Hat - U.s. Army Officer's Campaign Hat - Wwii Era, Made By Stetson Us Navy Usmc Marine Ww2 Eastman Pilot Blue Wool Flight Ball Cap Usn Aviator HatWwii Gurkha Parachute Battalion Felt Bush HatMr Fancy Cancel 24 3x Civil War Patriotic Flag And Cap Dix Quote Silver Creek NyWwii Cwac Canadian Women's Army Officer Uniform Tunic Jacket Lanyard Skirt CapAustralian Akubra Military Forces Slouch Hat With Pin Very Good Condition