What is a Coolie Hat?

Alyssa Simon

A coolie hat, also known as a sedge hat, rice hat, or paddy hat, is a conically-shaped hat typically made of straw that originated from East and Southeast Asian countries, such as Vietnam, China, and Cambodia. It is also worn in some parts of India and Bangladesh. The word coolie is thought to come from Urdu, a language spoken in India. The original word was kuli and dates back to the mid-16th century, meaning a laborer or person for hire. The use of the word coolie to describe a person is presently thought by some to be a racially offensive term.

Paddy hats are conically shaped and often worn by farmers and other outdoor laborers.
Paddy hats are conically shaped and often worn by farmers and other outdoor laborers.

Coolie hats are traditionally worn by both women and men and are typically used to shield the head and face from the sun and rain. It was considered useful to outdoor workers, such as farmers and fishermen. Not only was it a form of sun protection, the coolie hat could also be worn wet to provide relief from the heat. Coolie hats typically have a chin strap and a band inside the cone to allow the hat to sit lightly on the wearer's head without having direct contact. This allows for airflow and greater cooling capacity.

In Vietnam, the word for coolie hat is non la. Non is the word for hat, and la means leaf. Non la hats are sometimes designed with more than functionality in mind. Designers may weave words or poetic verses into the hat, some of which can only be viewed in direct sunlight. Japanese versions of coolie hats, although not commonly worn by modern Japanese, are called kasa , which is also the term for umbrella or parasol, and refers to the coolie hat's shape. Another variation is the jingasa, which is Japanese for soldier's cap, or literally, military hat.

The jingasa was developed in the mid to late 18th century, also known in Japan as the Edo era. Instead of straw, they were made from leather or iron, but still carried a peasant stigma for the wearer, much like coolie hat wearers in other countries. In the West and Europe, the coolie hat shape has periodically gone in and out of fashion. The most notable instance of its popularity may have been in Christian Dior's New Look collection in the 1950s. The conical hats balanced the wide skirts and narrow waists which became the new fashion of the period.

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