The Definitive Pith Helmet Guide

 Kyle Dalton  - November 2006

Kyle Dalton - Kill Cavlry: Vintage Clothes For The Man Of ActionPith helmets are one of the most iconic pieces of adventure gear. Just seeing them implies safaris, tropical adventures, and the age of imperialism. However, there are many types of pith helmets, and it takes a bit of looking around to determine which pith helmet is right for your impression. Some are more fitting for a haughty professor, while others are better for the two fisted rogue. As to which is appropriate for which, we'llnow turn to this guide.

Pith Helmets in General

A true pith helmet is what you should look for. Straw pith helmets, woven hats patterned in the shape of a pith helmet, and plastic pith helmets are a no-go. Pith is a type of cork that comes from the sola plant, or a similar species and a substitute is easily spotted. Cheaper though plastic and straw may be, it brings the entire wardrobe down to a store-bought feel, and can kill your look of adventure. Most providers of pith helmets will give you true pith, but keep an eye out, and if you aren't sure, call or e-mail them.

Wolseley Pattern Pith

This is the most common kind of pith helmet you'll find today, and the most recognizable of the types out there. This is about the most common price and style offered, though it can be found for cheaper, and in separate colors: The Village Hat Shop. The Wolseley pattern gets it's name from the man who instituted the new version from the more Victorian peaked pith helmets we'll cover later on. This version was instituted just prior to the Great War, and saw service well through the end of the Second World War. Originally, it began, as all pith helmets did, as a military pattern, but eventually was adopted by civilians in tropical climates as well. And, as we'll see with most other pith helmets, the Wolseley pattern saw relatively little actual combat. Cork is no substitute for metal on a battlefield, and is much more practical (and comfortable) behind the lines. Here's another dealer that carries the Wolseley pattern pith along with WWII and WWI British tropical gear: What Price Glory - BRITISH LIST - HEADWEAR.

From The Website: "Pith Helmets, Wolseley Pattern. This is the type used from 1900-1943, with the long neck flap. New reproduction available in sizes 7, 7 1/4, 7 1/2, 7 5/8, 7 3/4. $60 Wolseley Pith Helmet Special: Wolseley helmet (Regular $60) is now $45 with purchase of any British tropical uniform (Shirt or Bush Jacket AND Shorts or Trousers, either green or khaki)."

This is also a Wolseley Patten pith, though it isn't named as such:

From TAG Travel Clothing: "Bengal Pith Helmet": Made of Genuine Cork Pith in the Original Style and shape used by the British in their Manoevers around Bengal in India.This is the real Thing. Genuine Cork Pith covered in 100% Cotton Drill Fabric.Many of the Original moulds are used to make these Pith Helmets.  

International Military Antiques" "IMA has a huge selection of military collectibles and antiques. Our huge selection of militaria spans from pre- civil war through World War 2."

This is an original Wolseley with plenty of good pictures that can be used for reference: British WW2 Dated Woolsey Pith Helmet:

From Thier website: First introduced before WW1 and named for the British Victorian Hero and Commander-in Chief of the Army. Comes complete with Maker's label stating Size 6 Helmets Ltd., Wheathampstead 1941 with Broad Arrow stamp. Inner liner surface retains an original silver paper type lining and leather sweatband. The Tan canvas outer surface retains "pugaree" (wrap) and ventilation top mount. These rarely survived because of their lightweight construction, but were a blessing in the Desert heat of the North Africa Campaign against Rommel. These are just what the Eighth Army under General Montgomery used at EL ALEMAIN.

This Wolseley provides a little information on the history of this style of helmet, though it can be misleading, it was created after the Victorian era: British Victorian Colonial Pith Helmet:.

From Their Website: "Constructed, as in Victorian times, of cloth covered cork type material with light adjustable liner and adjustable leather chin straps; one size fits all. This New Made Pith Helmet is perfect for wearing or for your Military display. This model is the Wolseley Pattern Pith Helmet, named after the Army Chief of Staff in the close of the Victorian era, Sir Garnet Wolseley. Introduced in time for WW1 and saw service throughout the Empire until after WW2."

Other Wolseley Style Patterns The Wolseley pattern has a corner on the front brim of it's helmet, though there are others not in the Victorian peaked style that are squat and rounded as well. African Safari Pith Helmet

From The Village Hat Shop Website: The African Safari Pith Helmet that you see here is the newest pith helmet in our line. Like most of the others (Indian, French, British, Square-crowned, Camo) it is a real pith helmet. By "real" we mean that the hat is made from the core (pith) of trees that grow in northern Vietnam. They are made one piece at a time--see the images at our Pith Helmets main page. This helmet has the same properties as the others, that being light weight (the 4-ply wood interior is low-density-somewhat like balsa wood), immersible in water whereby the wearer stays cool as he/she hikes and the water evaporates, genuine leather sweatband and chin strap. The underbrim is green. Color: Khaki (as you see in the image). Sizes: Adjustable.
 

The French Pith Helmet:

From The Village Hat Shop Website -  This French style pith helmet is the original design from Vietnam. A hundred years ago, the French discovered the advantages of the material used to make these hats. The pith is from trees in northern Vietnam and has properties that make it both a good sun and rain shield. These helmets are made in Vietnam using the technigues inherited by the former French occupiers. This style has the biggest brim, about 2 3/4 inches, and is thus arguably the most functional. Color: Khaki, White. Size: Adjustable by way of a Velcro-like ending to the interior cotton sweatband. The standard helmet fits comfortably up to 7 1/4. If a 7 3/8 or above, we suggest the Big Head version of this helmet.

Indian Pith Helmet: "I've tried on this particular pith though do not, as yet, own it. It is quite possibly the most comfortable pith helmet that has ever graced my head! The leather band interior is incredibly comfortable."  (This doesn't provide a very good picture, you can see a better one at the overall Village Hat Shop link below...)

From The Village Hat Shop Website: This Indian style pith helmet, a.k.a. the Bombay Bowler, is the most popular pith helmet style in North America. These hats are made from the cork, or pith, of trees from northern Vietnam using techniques developed 100 years ago by the French during their occupation. The helmet is functional in both sunny and rainy weather.

TAG Safari On Line Store: Livingstone Pith Helmet:

Material: 7 oz 100% Cotton Twill Outer,Lined Finish: Genuine Pith Cork Moulded Inner ,Leather Chin Strap Description: Hat Band Color Varies with Outer Cover…

Miller Hats: "Indian Pith Helmet Hat"

(considering the quality of the other piths on this page, I'd e-mail them to ensure this pith is indeed pith helmet...)

Peaked Pith Helmets   

These were the most common pith helmets of the Colonial Victorian era, and saw extensive use in both civilian and military capacities. The first pith helmets started arriving on the scene even before the American Civil War, and appear to be, through the limited research I've done, in the peaked pith helmet style. The peaked pith can be divided into two categories, the British Army issues 1871 and 1895. The 1871, in stark contrast to other pith helmets saw extensive military service on the field. Popularized by the movie "Zulu", this white pith was worn in tropical climates by soldiers of the British empire. Some of these were dyed with tea to provide at least some camouflage in African environments. Dying your pith with tea (do this at your own discretion) can achieve a very good worn and adventurous look.

This is probably the highest quality reproduction of the 1871 pattern: British Victorian Colonial Pith Helmet: White M-1871 This site is one of the more expensive carriers of pith helmets, though I can't speak to the quality of it as I haven't yet seen good pictures of the interior of them: Thin Red Line: Suppliers and manufacturers of re-created Victorian and earlier uniforms; accoutrements, with attention to historical accuracy and detail....

Once again it appears that IMA has come through with the highest quality replica, and at only a slightly more expensive price: British Victorian Colonial Pith Helmet: Khaki M-1895.

 

This version I have personal experience with, and it is a durable and useful type: British Foreign Service-Zulu War Pith Helmet, as with all 1871 piths, it is difficult to keep clean. The 1895 is very similar to the 1871, except that the British had finally come around to modern warfare and began adopting khaki to their uniforms. The 1895 saw service on the front lines as well, up until shortly before the Great War. Again, it was very popular among civilian explorers, and has a distinctly less militaristic look to it than the 1871. Note the wrap around the 1895 as compared to the 1871.

The Village Hat Shop site again doesn't provide the best pictures, though I own this pith helmet and am very happy with it: British Pith Helmet-Khaki.

From The Village Hat Shop Site: This pith helmet style (also known as UK Pith Helmet)is associated with British colonial and foreign service history. It is made from trees grown in the northern part of Vietnam. The material can sustain heavy sunlight as well as rain. When wet the hat may become a bit softer, but then dries to its original state. The Vietnamese learned the art of pith helmet manufacturing a hundered years ago from the French during their occupation.

Though this particular pith might not fit in the peaked style, it's worth noting: Cavalry Pith Helmet.  

From TAG's Website:The British Cavalry used this hat in various forms in its North African Manoevers,and it proved efficient in protecting against being struck on the back of the head, due to the Pointed Back.The British South Africa Company used a Similar one, and so did the German Army in Africa.Made from Real Cork Pith covered in Cotoon Twill, this hat was often "Dunked" in water, before wearing, to create an Evaporation effect for cooling the wearer.Great Addition to any Trophy Room.

Pulp Villain Pith Helmets

Deutsches Afrika Korps (DAK) Pith Helmet: When one thinks of pulp adventure villains, they tend to think of Nazis. The Deutsche Afrika Korps (or DAK) were issued pith helmets. As mentioned earlier, these would generally be found behind the lines, though in limited instances they were seen on the front. These were generally seen with shields pinned to either side such as these sheilds  .While the metal helmets had their shields painted, the pith had metal pins. The first pattern was a khaki style, and the second was a bit darker, more olive drab.

This is a close reproduction (save the interior, being as Velcro had not yet been invented) of the DAK pith: Hessen Antique. As you can see, it's very pricey.

From The Hessen Antique Website: "Deutsche Afrika Korps Tropical Helmets - One of our German vendors has produced a limited run of DAK pith helmets. These authentic styled helmets include Khaki canvas covered cork with green trim and chinstrap just like the originals. Because they are imported from Germany, the insignia has been altered as required by German law. This insignia can be easily removed (like the originals) and can be replaced with original or reproduction insignia. Helmets come with an ajustable liner so one size fits all. One pair of authentic Wehrmacht styled German Army Sun-Dust-Wind Goggles are included free with each helmet. These Troppenhelm were worn by most German troops in North Africa, Italy, Greece and even Southern Russia.

Lakeside Taider: Scroll down on this site to see a pair of originals:

1)DAK Pith Helmet: Nice dark olive green felt-covered exterior. The shell is in nice condition with no damage or dents. The helmet’s air vent cap at the top is a matching felt. Both of the zinc helmet shields are in very good condition..."  2)Tan DAK Pith Helmet: Nice tan felt-covered exterior. The shell is in nice condition with no damage or dents. The helmet’s air vent cap at the top is a matching felt. Both of the zinc helmet shields are in very good condition.

Here are some desert photos of reproduced Italian uniforms: 1943, Tunisia Campaign commemoration - California, Mojave desert, USA, April 14-17, 2005:.

However, the only site I've found that actually sells Italian helmets, high quality though they may be, can be found here: The Italian Front: Multi-Period authentic Reproduction Uniforms for the reenactor, this is about the priciest pith you'll find on this article.

Communists could also be considered a villain of this era, debatable though that may be. However, they didn't use much in the way of pith, as these were generally Europeans concerned with domestic affairs, and not much for tropical climates. However, if you'd like to create a Soviet persona and a pith for it, you might be able to pull off the NVA tropical pith. I picked up one at a large reenactment a while back, though it was made of plastic. It proved very uncomfortable to wear, and I'm not sure the Village Hat Shop has improved on the design, so be sure to e-mail them if you're looking to get their olive drab pith adorned with a red and gold insignia. One thing I will say for it, it does look impressive: Vietnam Pith Helmet.

From The Website: If you have been reading the previous pith helmet product descriptions, you now know that the French developed the technique for making pith helmets while occupying Vietnam over 100 years ago. This is the style and most popular color that the Vietnamese people adopted for themselves. Underneath, this hat differs from the others in that it does not have a fabric covering the interior of the helmet. Instead, you'll find a hard green finish.

General Pith Helmet Links

  

 

 

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