Military Headdresses: The Ultimate Fashion Statement

While new trends in fashion can provide something to talk about, depending exactly on the statement new fashion is trying to make. It’s hard to believe that just 200 years ago, men’s militia hats were a fashion statement too. Militia groups were formed by men of means who banded together to form troops of cavalry, infantry or artillery. They were primarily social organization and they used their colorful uniforms as a way of competing with other militia organizations, not only at shooting and drilling competitions, but also on the ballroom floor. Each spent an inordinate amount of time creating distinctive uniforms—including hats.

The years of the early Republic were the heyday for military display. Uniforms and headdress exhibited an extravagance and diversity that was undoubtedly more suited to socializing than skirmishing. This era ended in 1914, when modern warfare replaced brilliant color with camouflage. Today, collectors eagerly seek items of early military dress.

American Revolutionary War Era Tricorn Hat

The tricorn hat evolved primarily for functional reasons. Troops with flintlock muskets tended to knock each other’s wide brimmed hats off when they drilled in close formation, so they sewed the brims to the crown. Soon the three-cornered—or tricorn—hat became de rigueur. In time, the brims became both shorter and more rigid, often bound with worsted tape to further strengthen and support the edges.

Militia Officer's Model 1840 Chapeau De Bras

Another popular military hat, half-moon in shape, was known as the “chapeau de bras.” The name, derived from the French words for hat (“chapeau”) and arm (“bras”), referring to the practice of carrying the hat under the arm when not being worn on the head. A more rigid form of the same hat was known simply as a “chapeau.” These hats were occasionally worn in the United States from side to side, but were usually worn fore and aft, with the front end cocked over one eye.

Baltimore Leather Tombstone Infantry Cap

In 1812 and 1815, the old ‘stovepipe” or “tar bucket” hats were replaced by the British “Belgic” or “Waterloo” hats. The Belgic hat was supposed to provide protection against sword blows and to give the wearer an impression of added height. The hat plates used on headgear of this type look a little like markers in a cemetery, and are, in fact, referred to by modern collectors as “tombstones.” It is curious to note that the United States Army adopted this British-style headgear in 1812; at the very time we were at war with Britain.

Painted Leather Light Dragoon Helmet

Crested, all-metal dragoon helmets were originally used by mounted troops. Designed to protect the head from saber strokes, they were based on a design first used in classical Roman days, and in modern times made famous by Napoleon’s Cuirassiers. The body of the helmet was patterned after the Tarleton helmet or “jockey cap,” while the crest itself was usually made of horsehair.

Boston Leather Bell Crown Shako

The word “shako” comes from a Magyar word for peaked cap. The military shako, was first used by Magyar (Hungarian) troops in Austria. In the United States, the Bell Crown Shako Cap, was in use between 1821 and 1832, and is recognizable for its distinctive shape: with the top wider than the base, and distinctly concave sides.

Military Chapeau With Fine Eagle Cockade

Cockades are decorative, shell-shaped crests on military hats, which denoted nationality. Spanish troops wore a red cockade and French troops wore a tricolor: red, white and blue. British soldiers wore a plain black cockade, as did the Americans during the colonial period. After the American Revolution, as a way of distinguishing themselves from the British, the Americans added a small eagle to the center of the cockade. Some of the plumes and pompoms found on military hats are unofficial. They were occasionally added by a style-conscious officer just to make a finer impression at the Sunday afternoon drill on the local village green.

Dr. Wes Cowan is founder and owner of Cowan’s Auctions, Inc. in Cincinnati, Ohio. An internationally recognized expert in historic Americana, Wes stars in the PBS television series “History Detectives” and is a featured appraiser on “Antiques Roadshow.” He can be reached via email at

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