Sunday, June 10, 2012

Pith Helmets, Sun Helmets, and Sola Topees – No Explorer Should Be Without One

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 gun optional).

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 soldier.

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 strap.

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.

A hunter from the darkest wild
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”.

UPDATE 2 May 2017: I have a new hat/helmet post -- Mr. Pratt’s Gun Hat or How to Be Fashionable But Deadly in the Trenches

So hat up, adventurers and investigators, the sun’s up and the chase is on!

Here are some additional links that you might enjoy:

A blog about hats and headgear: 

An excellent source of information on sun helmets and helmets in general try

New blog entry added 28 April 2013:  Slouch Hats, Bush Hats, Big Game Hunters, and Explorers 

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