- A conical hat is shaped like a narrow and tall cone, with a sharp point, or broad and wide.
- Conical hats are ancient and were once worn to show status or authority.
- Straw conical hats still appear in many different cultures, particularly in Asia.
You’re unlikely to see someone wearing a conical hat on the street today – tall, pointy conical hats are associated with costume-wearing. In contrast, wide-brimmed conical hats are commonly worn only in Asia. Conical hats have a fascinating history, which helps us understand how and why they are seldom worn today.
What is a conical hat?
A conical hat consists of material shaped or woven into the shape of a cone, either tall and pointed or wide and broad. Conical hats have been worn for millennia and are found in many different cultures across the world. Today, conical hats are largely worn in East and South Asia.
Although commonly worn to denote high status in the past, tall, narrow conical hats are rarely seen today, except as ritual garments (such as worn by the Ku Klux Klan) or as fancy dress items (such as a wizard’s hat).
Wide, broad conical hats are still common in East Asia, where they are worn as part of national costume and, for practical purposes, to shade the wearer from the sun when working outside.
Conical hats are not seen as a fashion accessory, although they appear now and again on the runway during Fashion Week.
What are the different kinds of conical hats, and what are they made of?
Because they have such an ancient history, there are many different variations of the conical hat. Let’s look at some that you will still see today.
Asian conical hats
Conical hats are often associated with Asian cultures, where simple conical hats have been worn for thousands of years, especially by farmers cultivating rice fields. This use has led to conical hats being given unfortunate names such as rice hat or coolie hat, regarded as insulting.
Farmers and outside laborers tend to wear conical straw hats to protect them from the sun and rain. These hats are practical as they can be dipped in water to cool off the wearer and tied on by a cloth or silk chin strap.
According to Country
Variations of the Asian conical hat are worn across Eastern and Southern Asia, from Bangladesh to India and Korea to Thailand.
The Vietnamese non la
Some of the most ancient examples of conical hats are seen in pictures on terracotta pots in Vietnam, dating back over 2000 years. Known as the non la or leaf hat, the Vietnamese conical hat is part of their national costume and may be beautifully stitched and decorated.
The Japanese conical hat
In Japan, the conical hat is associated with Buddhism and is usually worn by Buddhist pilgrims and monks begging for money.
However, the Japanese samurai also wore a conical hat, the jingasa, or traveling hat.
The Indian conical hat
The Indian conical hat or jaapi is woven from bamboo and traditional to the Assam area. These hats are very wide and often embellished with patterns and designs, especially when worn for festivals. Traditionally, jaapi hats were worn by nobility or royalty as a sign of status.
African conical hats
Straw or conical grass hats are also part of the national dress of the Basotho people of Lesotho, a tiny kingdom in Southern Africa. The Fulani people of West Africa wear a similar hat. Known as mokorotlo, these hats appear on the Lesotho flag and car license plates. The pointed design was inspired by Mount Qiloane, one of the peaks in this mountainous country.
However, the hat’s shape may also come from Asian people who were brought as slaves to South Africa centuries before.
Today, most of the conical hats we come across are in costumes.
Conical princess hats made popular by Disney are copies of a historical hat, known as the hennin. Royal women once wore them as a sign of status.
The capuchon is a conical hat based on the Princess hat but worn during Mardi Gras in Louisiana and intended to mock the nobles who wore these pointed hats.
Witches’ and wizards’ hats
Some of the most common conical hats we come across today are worn for Halloween or other dress-up events.
The party hat
Conical party hats are also still seen today, although they are less fashionable for children’s parties than they once were. They were probably inspired by the dunce’s hat, once worn as a punishment for foolish behavior. Now, these hats are associated with fun and silliness.
A history of the conical hat
Conical hats appear throughout history, usually as a symbol of status or nobility. However, they also became linked to magical or archaic practices and are used in this way still today. At the same time, conical hats were worn to show humility or shame. How did a single hat come to have so many different meanings?
Conical hats as a sign of status
Examples of tall, narrow, acute-angled conical hats appear throughout the ancient world, including in Greece, Babylon, Egypt, and China. These tall, pointy hats have been found in ancient artworks as well as in burial chambers.
Archaeologists have found well-preserved graves dating back 4000 years in China, in which the bodies are wearing tall, black conical hats made of felt. In ancient Mongolia, noble female warriors wore hats called boqtas or ku-kus to indicate their high status in society. These hats could reach seven feet tall and were decorated with feathers.
Similar cone-shaped hats still appear today in Mongolian costumes, but they are much more modest in size.
The hennin or Princess hat
Historians disagree about whether the Mongolian boqtas inspired the hennin or Princess hat during the Mongolian invasions of Europe. Either way, in the Middle Ages, European noblewomen wore tall, pointy hats with ribbons, streamers, or a veil attached.
Conical hats as a sign of magic
However, conical hats also had another meaning in the ancient world. According to Wilfried Menghin, director of the Berlin Museum in Germany, Bronze Age king-priests, particularly of the Scythian culture, wore golden conical hats decorated with sun and moon symbols. These hats, sometimes over two feet (1 m) tall, were a sign of authority.
The wearers were astrologers who were believed to have magical powers and the ability to foretell the future. These hats are the origins of the star-covered wizard hats children wear today.
Conical hats as a sign of humiliation
In complete contrast to conical hats being symbols of status or authority, there are many examples of conical hats worn to humiliate the wearer.
In Spain, the conical hat symbolizes humiliation, dating back to the Spanish Inquisition from the fourteenth to the nineteenth century. People arrested for heresy or religious crimes were punished by wearing a paper hat or capirote, the most serious being the red capirote, which showed that the wearer was sentenced to death.
Today, some Spanish Catholics don conical fabric hoods to show remorse for their sins. These hats cover the face of the penitent. Some religious groups have adopted the capirote as part of their costume, and you can see these in religious processions on festivals.
The Ku Klux Klan has also adopted the capirote as part of their uniform, but wear it not for religious purposes but to remain anonymous. In this case, the hood has taken on a more sinister and negative meaning.
The dunce cap
In nineteenth-century England, paper conical hats were also used to humiliate and publicly punish naughty (or struggling) school children who had to wear them and then stand in the classroom corner – these are called dunce caps. With a large D on the front, these conical hats were only prohibited as a form of punishment in English schools in 2010.
The origins of the dunce’s cap seem to lie with a philosopher called John Duns Scotus, whose outlandish theories led his followers – Dunsmen – to believe that tall pointed hats could direct thoughts to the brain. Duns Scotus was widely reviled, and the hat came to symbolize foolishness.
Conical hats as a sign of liberty
The Phrygian or liberty cap is a version of the conical hat, although it is made of soft fabric and has a turned-down point. Originally worn by Greek soldiers, the hat came to be associated with liberty after it was confused with the pileus, a soft cap worn by freed slaves in Ancient Rome.
The so-called liberty cap or bonnet rouge was a version of the Phrygian hat adopted by the Revolutionaries in France in the 1790s and taken to the United States and other parts of America.
Today the Phrygian cap appears on the coats of arms of many South American countries (including Argentina, Cuba, and Columbia as a symbol of liberty.
Wearing a conical hat
A conical hat is not an item you wear seriously – or should avoid entirely unless you are Harry Potter or a Disney princess. Wearing an Asian conical hat is generally seen as cultural appropriation and makes many people feel uncomfortable. Stick to a wizard’s hat on Halloween or a party hat at your baby cousin’s birthday. Those are the only conical hats you’ll ever need.