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What is a Topee?

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  • Written By: Mandi Rogier
  • Edited By: W. Everett
  • Last Modified Date: 11 November 2016
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Topee is another name for a pith helmet. This hard, cloth-covered hat has a distinct dome shape with a wide brim. The hat is designed to provide moderate protection from impact to the head as well as a significant amount of shade. This type of head gear is often pictured as a necessary accessory for jungle explorers.

Topees are also known as salacots, sun helmets, and safari helmets. This style of headgear first became popular in Europe in the 1870s. There, German troops used the helmet as a standard part of their military attire. British soldiers soon followed suit.

The sola, a swamp plant native to India, is used to construct topees. The pith of the plant is naturally white, so this piece of headgear is always white in its original construction. To darken the hat’s appearance, British troops fighting the Boer War in South Africa would soak it in tea. This gave the topee a more camouflaged appearance.

One of the greatest advantages of the topee is its ability to provide protection and shade without sacrificing breathability. In warm, tropical climates it is essential that one’s head remain cool. Pith is a very breathable material in itself. Holes were also punched in the top of the helmet to further cool the wearer’s head.

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Topees used as military garb outside of combat situations typically remain white with the addition of appropriate insignia. A colored band may be wrapped around the hat to designate the military branch of the officer. A badge or other emblem applied to the hat can be used for the same purpose.

By World War I, topees were standard for military personnel on all sides of the war. This style of hat was also gaining popularity among civilians. Both men and women wore topees as a piece of everyday attire for Westerners visiting tropical locations. This same style of headgear was used again in World War II, though the helmet was no longer made from pith by this time. Cork had replaced pith, as a sturdier element.

This type of hat is still in use today as a part of the uniform for some military personnel. Topees are also available for civilians and continue to be a popular choice when exploring tropical climates. Though this style of hat is not considered a fashionable choice for every day wear, the image of a topee on a khaki-clad jungle explorer is still common.

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