A sailor hat immediately conjures images of a fisherman or naval officer standing astride his seafaring vessel staring at the horizon in anticipation of a destination yet to be reached.
A sailor hat is a head accessory worn by sailors in the navies worldwide. It consists of a low-rolled brim with a high-domed top. Generally, the sailor hat is made of wedge-shaped canvas or cotton fabric. Most sailor hats are adorned with a tally and a streamer. Other embellishments can also be added, such as a badge or cockade.
Although traditionally considered a practical part of a mariner’s uniform, the sailor hat’s history and transformation through the ages and its influence in contemporary society may come as a bit of a surprise to most.
The History of the Sailor Hat
The history of the sailor hat can be traced back to the early 19th century. The Russian Navy, the earliest adopters of this style, took the standard peaked military service style hat used by all military branches at the time and developed it into one more suitable for marine conditions.
Around the same time, the Russian army applied their adaptations to the hat and produced their modern forage cap for their land-based soldiers.
The U.S. Navy Sailor Hat
In the U.S. Navy, the wide-brimmed blue or black flat hat first saw service in 1852 and was the standard-issue sailor hat until April 1st, 1963, when the more familiar white hat was introduced.
The problem with the flat black hat was a shortage of materials, namely cotton, available to manufacture them. Subsequently, this led to the development of a more comfortable canvas hat for use by sailors.
The original “tally,” an embroidered headband indicating the ship’s name, was eventually discontinued in January 1941 as it was regarded as a possible security threat by exposing ship movements to the enemy.
This ship’s name displayed at the front of the brim was replaced with “U.S. Navy” or “U.S. Coast Guard,” depending on the sailor’s posting. Early in their history, the colors of these hatbands ranged from green, red, yellow to light green.
These hats were easy and cheap to produce, easy to clean and store, pressed flat down under your mattress.
At first, flat hats were made of dark blue wool known as Metcalf serge. If the skipper allowed, a white cover could be sewn to the top of the hat to protect the sailor from sunlight during periods of hot weather.
Yet before the eventual appearance of the canvas-type sailor hat, a white “Senner” straw hat was the standard issue for sailors in the summer months between 1866 and 1886. This variation was reportedly intended to shield sailors’ from bright summer sunlight.
The more commonly worn iconic U.S. style of white naval hat called the “Dixie Cup” will be instantly familiar to most fans of World War II movies.
Also called a “squid lid,” “Cracker Jack hat,” or just a simple “cover,” it closely resembled a disposable paper drinking cup. This rendition of the mariner’s headgear has been a favorite of U.S. naval servicemen and women for over 120 years.
The canvas material was eventually replaced with a more comfortable cotton variety. It was popular as it could be bent into a shape to reflect a seaman’s individual personality while still falling well within standard regulation, at least in most cases and if not considered as too outlandish by the skipper.
“The tradition of hat customization hasn’t changed much in over a quarter of a century, according to Navy Master Petty Officer and avionics technician (A.W.) Duane R. Bushey. ‘The white hat behaves like putty—you can mold different characters out of it.”
Command Master Chief Jerry Robinson described how he would roll the top quarter edge to flare out and a flat edge. It took some effort to keep it like that.’
“Most sailors usually find it took some arduous work to get their white hats just exactly the way they like them.”
The Navy attempted to phase the Dixie Cups out in the 1970s as part of a general uniform refashioning. Due to public pushback, the hats were retained and were even mandated for female sailors in 2016.
A flat black hat was still worn in the winter months. Most sailors were issued with both until around the 1950s or 1960s rolled around and were later phased out completely.
The Royal Navy
In the British Royal navy, roundish caps with a tally headband were worn in the mid-1800s and were officially noted in the “Uniform Regulations Petty Officers, Seamen, and Boys” of 1857.
The original blue caps had a white cotton duck for summer. In tropical climates, however, in 1930, a new design with a fixed white duck crown was introduced, supplemented by a redesigned blue version a year later.
A 1936 suggestion that the blue cap should be discontinued was not adopted. The regulation of April 1940 stipulated that white caps were not to be worn in “home territorial waters” for the duration of World War II.
Blue caps were finally discontinued in 1956.
Other Navies Around The World
The French Navy introduced the “Bachi,” with its distinctive red pompom on top, was around 1848. The cap was worn initially as an ordinary duty alternative for a formal leather hat turned upside. The cap is still used as a dress item in the present day.
The Belgian Navy adopted the same pattern of the cap, but with light-blue pompom and trailing ribbons, on March 29th, 1939.
Bolivian, Philippine, and Venezuelan sailors currently wear a white canvas hat with an upright brim, also often referred to as a “Dixie cup,” referring to its similarity to the U.S. Navy variety.
Polish Navy sailors also wore this hat before 1939—it was called the “Amerykanka” (“American hat”) or “Nejwihetka” (derived from the English phrase “Navy hat”).
In Popular Culture
Sailor hats are not only seen in WW2 action movies but as props in other Hollywood productions where sailors can be spotted at bus stops, train stations, or airport terminals.
In their infancy as a fashion accessory, many sailor hat styles were introduced as part of civilian street fashion in Britain as early as the 1840s when the Prince of Wales wore a standard navy issue wide-brimmed hat with a slightly rounded crown.
This style is documented as still in vogue in early photographs of English boys in the 1880s.
Although not widely worn due to the prevailing children’s fashion trends, wide-brimmed sailor hats, based on earlier Senner straw hats worn by British sailors in the 18th century, first appeared around that time. Boys were beginning to get dressed up in sailor suits and hats sometime in the mid-19th century.
The trends were adopted by style icons of the period Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, who began dressing up the young princes in sailor suits.
Monarchies were under political attack throughout Europe. Military-style uniforms in princes and hence young boys in the general public were associated with the strength and prestige of the Royal Navy.
These fashion trends were gradually adopted by British mothers and soon by parents throughout Europe and America. The sailor suit was becoming very popular by the 1870s and early 1900s and was arguably the ultimate fashion for boys.
As hats and headgear, in general, were compulsory with any dress outfit in the 19th and early 20th century, sailor hats were not strictly reserved as an accompaniment to sailor suits. A wide-brimmed sailor hat was often considered a compulsory accessory to a boy’s party suit.
Boys were almost always adorned with a broad-brimmed or the British-American style of flat-topped sailor caps with wide tops.
Many fashion trends were first tried on children before adults wore them. The straw hat eventually became a favorite with fashionable adults after the turn of the century.
Older boys who wore sailor suits would wear hats with more narrow brims hats, which were popular from the 1870s-90s, but would mostly wear caps after the turn of the century. The narrow brim hats usually had no chin strap and a hatband but no streamer.
Flat crowned sailor hats appeared in the 1870s for both younger and older boys, the width of the brim being the primary characteristic differentiating styles for younger and older boys.
The Breton sailor hat was French-style worn by children and women. It has a brim that turns up evenly all around.
Although hats are rarely worn in modern times, a variety of classic styles are still used for boys serving as ring bearers at formal weddings. These usually include broad-brimmed sailor caps or the straw sailor hat.
Sailor hats and caps have played a tremendous role in naval history in the U.S. Navy and the world over. So much so that it has to a large degree, influenced the choice of headgear not only in film and popular culture but also in fashion. The Sailor hat will undoubtedly continue to evolve as more practical variations are developed, and new trends are adopted.
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Wise Geek: What is a Sailor Hat
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Defense Media Network: Sailors Liked the Flat Hat and Wore it for 111 Years
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Uniforms 4U: US Navy White Service Hat Dixie Cup