The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

From 19th-century India to Melania Trump: How pith helmets became a symbol of colonialism

After facing backlash for wearing a white pith helmet in Kenya in 2018, first lady Melania Trump said that she doesn’t want people to focus on her wardrobe. (Video: Drea Cornejo/The Washington Post)

Henry M. Stanley. Winston Churchill. Cecil Rhodes. Name a figure whose name is synonymous with colonial empire, and you can probably find a vintage photograph or hand-drawn illustration of them in a khaki safari suit and pith helmet. In fact, during the 19th century, pith helmets were worn by colonial officials, soldiers, explorers and missionaries so frequently that they “came to visually epitomize the 19th-century age of imperialism in world history,” explains an entry in “Hats and Headwear around the World: A Cultural Encyclopedia.”

That may or may not be news to Melania Trump, who was photographed wearing a pith helmet on a Friday visit to Nairobi National Park. After being widely criticized for her choice of headgear, which some saw as a throwback to Victorian-era racism and oppression, she told reporters on Saturday that she wished people would “focus on what I do, not what I wear.”

She’s not the only first lady to wear one. In 1994, The Washington Post’s Phil McCombs reported that then-first lady Hillary Clinton “appeared in a pith helmet, looking vaguely like a North Vietnamese Army officer” on a visit to the San Diego Zoo Safari Park. (Good luck trying to find a picture, though.)

There are various competing legends about the origin of the pith helmet, but historians generally agree the short-brimmed hats — also known as “safari helmets,” “sun helmets” or “topis” — were originally made from the dried pith of swamp plants in India. By the 1850s, they had become the standard-issue headgear for Europeans in Africa, parts of Southeast Asia and the Middle East.

Now, pith helmets are worn by motorcycle taxi drivers in Hanoi, as well as police officers in Cameroon and Peru. In the United States, postal workers wear pith helmets as part of their uniforms on exceptionally rainy or sunny days, and the U.S. Marine Corps’ marksmanship coaches wear them at shooting ranges. “The helmet is an icon of the expertise that marksmanship coaches bring to train Marines as proficient shooters,” explained a 2010 news release.

Pith helmets initially had a practical purpose: Their rounded design allowed air to circulate, cooling the wearer’s head and scalp. But they were also worn on chillier days. In 1902, John Murray’s “Handbook for Travellers in India, Burma and Ceylon” warned tourists that “even in cold weather the midday sun India is dangerous, and it is therefore advisable to wear a cork or pith helmet.”

The idea that white people from Europe needed special protection from the sun was based on racist pseudoscience, George Orwell wrote in a 1944 essay. “ ‘Natives’, their skulls being thicker, had no need of these helmets, but for a European even a double felt hat was not a reliable protection,” he recalled being told.

Emphasizing the difference between the natives and their colonizers was “one of the necessary props of imperialism,” Orwell added. “You can only rule over a subject race, especially when you are in a small minority, if you honestly believe yourself to be racially superior, and it helps toward this if you can believe that the subject race is biologically different.”

Orwell noted with satisfaction that the pith helmet’s popularity had seemingly waned by the end of World War II, adding, “The thin skull was the mark of racial superiority, and the pith topi was a sort of emblem of imperialism.” 

Despite that symbolism, or perhaps because of it, pith helmets became a handy prop for Hollywood costume designers in the decades that followed Orwell’s essay. Movies set in Africa, which often trafficked in racial stereotypes themselves, routinely featured white actors wearing pith helmets, from Grace Kelly in “Mogambo” (1953) and Michael Caine in “Zulu” (1964) to Bo Derek in “Tarzan the Ape Man” (1981) and Meryl Streep in “Out of Africa” (1985). Meanwhile, political cartoonists used the pith helmet as evidence of 19th century colonialism.

For the fashion industry, however, it connoted exoticism and escapism. In 1984, amid a resurgence in safari-inspired fashion, a clothing store by the name of Banana Republic advertised an “authentic Bombay pith helmet” in its mail-order catalogue. “From Her Majesty’s former burden, the Colony of India, comes our genuine Bombay Bowler,” read the description, in language that would almost certainly spark a boycott today.

“Having flocked to movies like Out of Africa, Romancing the Stone and especially the Indiana Jones films, Americans were nuts about khaki twill and far-flung, steamy destinations,” Robert Klara explained in AdWeek in 2016. “For those who couldn’t afford a ticket to Sri Lanka, Banana Republic’s mall stores offered a substitute of sorts.”

Still, the pith helmet was never exclusively the domain of would-be explorers and white people with romantic ideas about the so-called dark continent. North Vietnamese soldiers wore olive green pith helmets during the Vietnam War. Ethiopian emperor Haile Selassie was frequently photographed wearing a pith helmet, including on the first anniversary of his coronation after the end of Italian colonial rule.

In 1966, the civil rights activist James Meredith marched through Mississippi wearing a pith helmet while encouraging African Americans to vote. Charles W. “Hoppy” Adams, the legendary black DJ at WANN in Annapolis, Md., wore a pith helmet during live appearances in the 1950s and 1960s. (It’s now in the National Museum of American History.) And the rapper Andre 3000 of OutKast wore a straw pith helmet with a bow tie and overalls on MTV’s “Total Request Live” in 2006.

It’s not clear whether any of these figures intended their choice of headwear to make a statement. Political implications aside, the brimmed hats do serve a practical purpose: They protect the wearer from the sun and rain. It might be the reason the pith helmet never entirely went away.

But in recent years, the nostalgic embrace of pith helmets has become increasingly controversial. In the steampunk subculture, which is made up of science fiction enthusiasts who are heavily influenced by Victorian-era fashion, whether it’s acceptable to dress up in a vintage pith helmet is often the subject of heated debates.

In January 2016, actress Thandie Newton, known best for her role on “Westworld,” was at Starbucks when she spotted a statuette of a black boy wearing a pith helmet and loincloth and holding a bowl of coffee beans. “Seriously @Starbucks?” she wrote on Twitter. “Happy New Year circa 19th century.”

The company immediately removed the figurine and apologized.

More from Morning Mix:

Can Taylor Swift, revered by young Americans, help lead Democrats out of the woods?

Rose McGowan, an original Weinstein accuser, calls Hollywood’s #MeToo support ‘a Band-Aid lie’

Columbus, Ohio, once spent $95 million to celebrate Columbus Day. Now, it’s canceled.