It’s 1949. France grasps at torn shreds of empire like a gut-shot man clutches spilled entrails. In Hanoi, a French quartermaster designs the hat that will go on to symbolize this war. Someone needs to tell him gently, “This war might go aubergine-shaped and abandon thousands to death or slavery, so I’d avoid the whole ‘icon of infamous military incompetence and betrayal’ vibe.”
But such is French exceptionalism that even though their empire dried and shriveled in Vietnam and Algeria, its hat lived on. For once in history, the losing side’s hat didn’t get chucked into ignominy but survived, spread its wings, and arose into an American yuppy fashion phenom. Yes, it was clunky, impractical, and kind of ugly, but so were go-go boots, and France made those a hit too. How does France always pull this off?
The Beret For the Bush Hat
In 1954, moments the French defenders were overrun at Dien Bien Phu, Col. Pierre Langlais burned the “hallowed red beret” of the paratroopers, to save it from desecration, and met his Viet Minh captors in the French colonial infantry’s plain old bush hat.
The berets had always been a problem, to tell the truth.
Hats are mostly symbolic, as we’ve noted before. That’s especially true of a red beret in a tropical war zone. It’s not protecting you from heat or sun, and it sure isn’t hiding you from the enemy. French paratroops actually wore these things in combat, which struck journalist Bernard Fall as fool-hardy because, well, what’s the French for “target on your head?” But that is how much the paratroops treasured the status conferred by their hard-won beret.
But on days when soldiers didn’t want their heads blown off, France needed practical headgear that wasn’t bright red. That was how the French Army developed the “chapeau de brousse, modèle 1949.” They were trying to improve on the wide-brimmed Australian slouch hats worn by their WWII allies in Burma, those famous ones that are pinned up on one side.
Be Careful What You Wish For
The Australians were absolute hell on wheels in both world wars, fighting alongside France on the western front, in North Africa, and in Burma. I can see why the French command looked to their tropical headgear expertise.
But symbols are tricky, and the French generals got their jobs by escaping from German POW camps and driving tanks for de Gaulle, not PR. Otherwise they might have thought it a bad omen to model the hat for their underfunded, half-hearted national effort in Vietnam on an icon of the infamous Gallipoli campaign, remembered as a national betrayal in which Britain abandoned the troops of its Australian dominion to fend for themselves against an underestimated enemy, unsupported by the mother country. The French Union troops who wore the hat–many of them Moroccan, Algerian, Senegalese, central and eastern European, Vietnamese, Lao, Cambodian, Tai, and Hmong–would be able to say similar things later.
For its time, the modèle 1949 was innovative. It took the old slouch hat–hardly a new invention–and tried making it from cotton. (The Ozzie versions are felt.) With plain old cotton, the hat endured rougher handling in the field than felt, which deserves to be maintained nicely.
Of course, the hat still needed some stiffness, or else it would droop in your face. And there’s no point in trading out your bright red “shoot me” beret for a hat that blinds you. At least in berets you might see your assassin!
So the French did something clever: they stiffened the cotton cloth with lots of extra seams. (We’ll see them do that again later.) Now you had an inexpensive semi-stiff cotton hat that you could shape like more expensive felt or leather.
Importantly, it was cheap: in the whole Indochina theater, France barely had two helicopters to rub together. They had lots of men to clothe but little materiel except what they could get from the Americans.
After the fall of Dien Bien Phu, the French Army left remnants of its presence in Southeast Asian material culture, including their bush hat, for American arrivals to puzzle over years later. The hats were worn by South Vietnamese and Laotian forces (both of which originated as French colonial forces) and seemed to American incongruously like attempts at cowboy hats.
Then Americans began to wear the French hats.
USAF personnel based in Thailand adopted them as regional uniform items and tricked them out with unit bling.
They’ve even made a comeback recently. The American 25th Fighter Squadron attended joint war games in Thailand, where their unit was based during the war, and they marked the occasion with retro “Saigon Cowboy” hats as a nod to tradition.
Once even the Americans got hip to French bush hats, it was time for France to move on to something cooler.
Supposedly the paratroop battalions found the standard bush hat too heavy and too clumsy in, well, actual bush; what’s the point of a bush hat if it keeps getting knocked off your head by branches when you’re whacking through the jungle? So the paratroopers developed their own, alternate jungle hat (stay tuned for that), which only they were allowed to wear.
I kind of wondered whether that wasn’t really the main point all along. The paratroopers were the big swinging you-know-whats of the French Army, and if they were vain enough to want their own proprietary, elite berets, even if it meant a bullet in the old melon, maybe they would just invent reasons why they absolutely, positively had to have special hats.
Turns out, I was wrong. First, the paratroopers were totally NOT shy about their vanity. They flat-out admitted they wanted special hats, pardieu!
Second, I tried this hat out myself and, though I really wanted to like it, I hated it too. First, it really is heavy. At 170g, it’s 70% heavier than a baseball cap or boonie hat. And that’s just its dry weight. Add rainwater and you’ll be wearing well over one pound on top of your head.
And it sits annoyingly *high* on your head, with little purchase. Up there, it really is begging to come off in wind or foliage.
And though I don’t think it’s downright ugly, it’s at least “overbuilt.” I’d rather saw off the top of an umbrella, attach a chin strap, and be done with it.
Again With the French Exceptionalism
If this were any other empire, that would be the end of the story. We would say, “They had a good run, they invented a couple hats that were decent for their time, and then they were left behind by history.” And that would be all for the clunky bush hat. But French colonial headwear wasn’t finished just yet! It just migrated, shape-shifted, and found a new role in…
… American consumerism! I won’t try to settle a weighty question like whether American commerce deserves to be called “Coca Cola colonialism” or “cultural imperialism.” I’ll just say that, where we must apologize for sins of cultural commission, omission, transmission, or superimposition, sometimes we were led astray. Specifically, France made us do it!
For around 1981, as Ronald Reagan was settling into the White House, the old French bush hat found a new outpost of empire at a new store in San Francisco called Banana Republic. Originally just a couple of intellectuals with witty, hand-drawn catalog, they took exotic-looking military surplus, gave it a good wash and a really cool story, and made it a sensation. (Abandoned Republic has an awesome FB page and blog that is a kind of cultural archive and museum of the phenomenon that was Banana Republic in its zany startup years.)
I checked, and the catalog was actually telling the truth about Jerusalem: none other than the Israeli army thought well enough of the French bush hat to adopt it. Maybe it was a sweetener in some arms negotiation: “I’ll make you deal, monsieur le ministre,” said a French official. “I’ll throw in a nuclear reactor with those Mirage fighter jets if you’ll take these clunky hats off our hands. Make your guys wear them.”
Because I can’t see what anyone wants with these antiquated hats. I tried to fob mine off on Lean Solid Wife. It looks fairly unisex, as Banana Republic advertised, and I hoped maybe madame would be intrigued by the “piece of Eighties material culture history” angle. But the instant I placed it on her head, she shook her head non: “Too heavy, too clumsy and unstable. And it’s kind of ugly.” I’m disappointed, but at least I’m vindicated!