A fannish blog dedicated to Science Fiction and Fantasy conventions, movies, games, game design, costuming, prop making, blogs, horror, steampunk, RPGs, Tintin, H. P. Lovecraft, Cthulhu, books, videos, and to CoastCon itself.
CoastCon is a SF & F convention that has been held annually in Biloxi, Mississippi each Spring for nearly 40 years.
Sun helmets are typically associated with explorers and high
adventure, the military, colonial expansion and Victorian wars. No early to middle 20th century B
movie about “The Dark Continent” or India was complete without kaki clad
explorers or adventurers with pistol belt and sun helmet (jodhpurs and elephant
The pith helmet holds a special place in the imagination;
just put one on and you are transported to a world of high adventure in obscure
and dangerous places. The strong
association of this piece of vintage headgear is so powerful that it has become
a shorthand iconic image of the adventurer, explorer or colonial military
Sun helmets tentatively appear about the 1840s, originating
in India but by the 1870s they have become so popular most major military
powers had a sun helmet for issue to troops in tropical or desert
climates. Supporting civilian colonial
employees also had sun helmets as well as common clerks, merchants, factors,
and hangers-on. Sun helmets continued
to be common issue for the military from the middle Victorian era through WWII
for most armies. Sun helmets didn’t
entirely end with WWII however, some countries continued to issue them such as
US forces in Vietnam and interestingly enough, the North Vietnamese.
These sun helmets were made to protect the wearer from the heat
and had another advantage: when the
helmet was doused with water, evaporation caused a cooling sensation. Additional customizations were the use of
neck curtains, to keep the neck from dangerous sunburn and a puggaree, which is
a cloth wrapping that could be used to indentify the owner or military unit and
other military insignia. Grommet holes
let out accumulated heat from the side and the top buttons often had side
ventilation holes. Generally, the
helmets were covered with a white, off white or khaki colored material as
darker colors tended to defeat the purpose of the sun helmet. Inside they might be lined in the same
colors or a dark color and they had a suspended sweat band and generally a chin
The secret of the sun helmet’s success and popularity was
its lightness and broad head coverage.
This was achieved by having a core of heat resistant insulation, which
might be cork or a type of plant pith.
The common name for sun helmets in India is sola topee, later corrupted
to solar topee. Sola is an Indian
swamp plant and sholapith is the Indian name for the easily formed, spongy
material in the core of the plant, placed in the helmet as insulation. It’s sometimes called Indian cork.
Civilians took to sun helmets as quickly as the
military. The punishing sun of tropical
and desert climates required a headgear that cut the sun’s rays and yet remained
light. As times changed, the sun helmet
became simpler, later being made of a sheet pressed fiber or plastic, which left out the
insulation for the consideration of cheapness of manufacture. The fancy spikes on military helmets often
also had ventilation holes.
Comfort, ease of manufacture and cheapness made sun helmets the best way
to keep out heat stroke and sunburn.
You still occasionally see sun helmets in use other than for
ceremonial guards; for example the polo players sun helmet, sun helmets worn by
life guards, gardeners, and some outdoor workers. The resurgence in historical reenacting and costuming has seen a boom in making
original and historical sun helmets, so costuming is far easier than is was
decades ago when you had to use fragile, original and expensive sun helmets as
part of your costume. Victorian RPGs and Call of Cthulhu are two types of role playing games where pith helmets are de rigor headgear, and of course Steampunk.
Sun helmets are de rigor for tropical or desert bound
characters, heroes, and villains from popular matinee movie shorts like Jungle
Jim, Rama of the Jungle and Republic serials. The sun helmet in graphic novels,
movies and literature is still used commonly.
Consider the science fiction artist Mobius’ Major Gurbert with his
French colonial sun helmet with the spike that is a radio antenna. Consider also the mustachioed Victorian
character Hunter Van Pelt from the film Jumanji waiving his steampunk gun
around, and my favorite sola topee’d bad guy, Renee Belloq from Raiders of the
Lost Ark, sporting his “Bombay bowler” – “Doctor Jones; again we see there is
nothing you can possess which I cannot take away”.
A hunter from the darkest wild
So hat up, adventurers and investigators, the sun’s up and
the chase is on!
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