From Fourth Republic to Banana Republic: France’s Bush Hat

A further installment in our series on Hats of Defeat and the charms of French surplus gear.

Not even a quagmire. France’s Fourth Republic didn’t survive this, but its bush hat became a favorite with American yuppies.
(AP, 1951. CC)

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.” 

Legionnaire of the 2e BEP keeping the Hanoi-Haiphong road open (1954).

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. 

Pierre Langlais (right), de facto commander at Dien Bien Phu, and his bush hat.
https://www.mofo-fdc.com/t53-le-general-marcel-bigeard

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. 

The chapeau de brousse in Algeria.
The ANZACs’ famous slouch hat debuted at Gallipoli. A bad omen for France’s new hat, like naming it “bush hat, modèle de disaster of military incompetence that haunts a nation for generations.”
(Note that the brim is turned up on the left side. We’ll come to that in a moment.)

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.

Two future Banana Republic catalog favorites in a French colonial outpost near Hanoi. The man on the right is wearing the French Army bush hat. The seated officer is wearing the awesome chaussures de brousse that Banana Republic would later reproduce as “Foreign Legion boots.” (Jean-Philippe Charbonnier, 1951. CC)

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.

Legionnaires in Indochina.

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. 

The incredible profusion of stitching is how you can tell the French bush hat from the boonie hats that Americans started improvising in Vietnam. See that fingerprint pattern on the crown of the hat? That’s what the French hats do to give body to the material (though it also adds weight). American boonie hats have a flat tops instead of the “dented dome” of the French hat.

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.

Americans know this is the South Vietnamese army’s “cowboy hat.” To store away the obnoxiously long neck strap, you could secure it on top of the hat. This pulled up both sides of the hat and made it look something like a cowboy hat. (Photo Carl Evers, 1967-68. CC)

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.

New inductees into the South Vietnamese army! They look thrilled.
Note their hats are turned up on the right, not the left (as on the Australian officer above). Like its French founders, the South Vietnamese army used French drill and slung the rifle on the right shoulder, rather than on the left as in British and Commonwealth drill.
If you’re American and you recognize the French bush hat, you probably know it from American war-time pictures of South Vietnamese soldiers. Other than a képi and an Inspector Clouseau mustache, it’s the French Army’s deepest imprint on the late modern American visual imaginaire.
American advisor talking to South Vietnamese Regional Forces soldiers, who are a virtual exhibit of the broad range of ARVN headwear. From left to right, the French bush hat, the ARVN fatigue cap, the ARVN camo fedora (yes!!), and a pith helmet. To that man’s right is someone wearing a beret.

Then Americans began to wear the French hats.

Pilots at US air base in Thailand during Vietnam war. The two on the right and left are Americans wearing the French bush hats. The Anzac in the middle is wearing the original slouch hat on which they’re based. (Military Times) (Why is his hat turned up on the right, not the left? From what I’ve read, units from different states had different drill and uniform standards, with some turning up the left, for the rifle, and others the right, for the “eyes right” command.)

USAF personnel based in Thailand adopted them as regional uniform items and tricked them out with unit bling. 

USAF in Thailand. (Military Times)

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.

In addition to turning up both sides, many Americans in Thailand furthered the “cowboy” look by creasing down the crown all the way around (instead of denting it in a lengthwise furrow, as was common with the French.) The man in the foreground has done that with his; the man behind him has left his au naturel.

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.

I’ll keep the nifty chèche, thanks, but this hat is pour les oiseaux.

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.)

Banana Republic’s catalog boasts the hat “100% water repellant cotton,” but that sounds as likely as “weight-loss birthday cake,” which is just the sort of cheek that you used to find in Banana Republic catalogs. (Photo courtesy of Abandoned Republic)

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!

Goldilocks Boots

I don’t even buy them anymore, I swear. They’re breeding and multiplying.

After experimenting a lot, I have arrived at some hard-won conclusions about boots for rucking. 

Great for flat roads and short to medium distances, but nothing hairier than that.

As reported earlier, I rejected GORUCK’s own house brand of boots, the MACV-1. Though attractive and wonderfully light, they have so little tread that I kept slipping and falling on down slopes. Unacceptable. They also lack a “shank,” a stiffener in the sole that helps you toe off the ground when your arches are tired.

I also gave an audition to Rocky’s inexpensive RLW or “Rocky light weight” boots, which look like the big brothers of the MACV-1. They are reasonably light, deeply treaded, and tall enough that I can “double lace” them, i.e. lace the instep separately from the ankle. However, being an economy model, they have a seam in the heel that many purchasers complain give them blisters (I did have a bit of that too, but you can counter that with an Engo pad) and their tongues are constructed in a strange way that required a long break-in before they stopped rubbing my instep raw. I could have gotten past both these bugs, but crucially, these boots lack a shank. I wore them for a 42-mile training ruck, and after twenty miles I longed for that stiffened sole. By that point I had used up my foot muscles for the day and, lacking a stiff boot sole, I could not toe off the ground anymore and instead was reduced to short, choppy steps. Never again. Not for a long distances. 

Rocky’s RLW or “commercial lightweight boot.” Basically a MACV-1 with serious treads. But not the crucial shank.
The Glock of boots: ugly, indestructible, affordable, reliable Germanic bricks.

And of course I have plenty of heavy boots that could probably kick through concrete, like my plug-ugly surplus combat boots issued by Germany’s Bundeswehr. If a crocodile masticated and swallowed them, the German giants would just emerge from the other side perfectly serviceable. These are just the thing for search-and-rescue bushwhacking. And shanks, oh, the shanks! You could probably drive a nail with them. But at over a kilo each—only Iron Man has heavier boots—these are not boots you can wear for 50 miles.

No, the “Goldilocks” boot is Rocky’s S2V Predator, which is a medium weight (about 800g each) and has the all-important shank. They also scarcely need breaking in. I double lace them, use “ladder lacing” on my left instep (which apparently is bigger than my right), and it’s quick and easy for me to adjust the fit to my level of foot swelling and the terrain. 

These work great with my preferred sock set-up, a FoxRiver liner sock inside a Finnish M05 liner sock. Together with my new, larger and wider boot size, these kept my toes happy, uncrowded, and essentially unblistered for the whole fifty miles of the Star Course. No burgerfeet!

Note that I still love jackboots! I still think of them as my best all-round boots, the ones I’d grab if you said, “Get your boots on, we’re going on a mystery adventure! I won’t tell you any details at all: beaches or woods or mountains or city, wet or dry, rain or snow or sun—it’s all a surprise! Maybe we’ll be gone for a day, maybe for a month.” That would be easy: I would wear my $20 rubberized East German jackboots and bring one extra pair of sliced up bed sheets footwraps.

But jackboots make sense as my ideal general-purpose boot, whereas here we’re talking specifically about walking 50 miles through a city at top speed, which is very specialized indeed.

Assume the Position: Star Course AAR, Part II

Click here for Part I, “Soiled But Unsullied.”

GORUCK sometimes calls the Star Course their hardest event. I doubt that very much, but this was the toughest I’ve done. I expected that after my surprisingly grueling training hike, but I was still surprised by the added burden of route-finding and the premium put on strategy and organization. 

Early in the night, we emerged from a dark trail above the ocean and stumbled upon a throng of people clustered busily around a brightly lit SUV in what appeared to be a news shoot or a crime scene investigation. I was wrong: it was a rival team on the Star Course with a logistical crew that looked like it belonged on the Tour de France. All five doors were open, with light streaming out, and pallets of bottled water and food were broken open and passed out in an atmosphere of calm but rapid efficiency. Next to the vehicle, a woman held up an iPad showing a countdown timer with bright red numbers four inches high. When I walked past, still gaping, they had 0:58 seconds left on their clock. When I reached the next block and looked back, the entire scene had evaporated like a mirage.

With or without a backup crew, a team must assign positions to its members and carry out three key functions:

  1. Walking: Each person must walk for him- or herself, but also somebody has to be certain the group is moving fast enough to adhere to their game plan.
  2. Navigating: As one cadre has said, “You live and die by your route.” At least one person must eye this at all times. In addition to route-finding, sometimes the team might be trying to walk an unmarked footpath in complete darkness and need additionally a sort of “point man” just to figure how to keep to the path from one footstep to the next.
  3. Communicating: This involves both running Instagram and talking with your backup crew, if you have one. On the Star Course, from each waypoint the team must post an Instagram selfie against a specified background (e.g. “Make sure your photo includes the inscription over the gate”) with a specified hashtag. When you are tired, it takes concentration to get these details right and run Instagram with your face in your smudged, grimy screen while speed-walking. Additionally, if you are lucky enough to have friends in a car bringing you supplies, it can be harder than you think to coordinate time and location with them, especially on a nice Saturday morning in city streets, parks, and local attractions, when the city is teeming with traffic, tourists, pedestrians going to brunch, and rollerbladers and cyclists enjoying the sunshine. (This is also why your backup crew really needs two people in the car, one to coordinate with you so that the other can concentrate exclusively on driving safely.)

At a minimum, you want to divide these responsibilities between two people at a time, and more would be even better. When things are busy, you might need separate people handling the phone and Instagram, and in bad navigation conditions it can help to have one person handling the route-finding software, a second person checking their work on Google Maps, and a third person on point who strains their eyes to find the pathway in darkness and rain. 

That may sound exaggerated, but on Saturday I was trying to conduct all the functions alone, when I was the last surviving member of my team, and I scarcely had enough fingers to operate Road Warrior, Google Maps, phone, text, Insta, and the “hit list” of way point instructions. In fact, I could barely walk right, between fatigue and having my head bent down the whole time, peering at a grungy screen through sweaty lenses.

From noontime on, Lean Solid Girl was the one holding me together. And by dinner, she was literally holding me upright.

The only reason that I continued to function at all was that Lean Solid Girl staged the most heroic performance I’ve yet seen or heard of. Like a thousand-armed bodhisattva who appears in many places simultaneously, she kept driving ahead to scout out waypoints, talk me through the required photos and tags, and sometimes just took over Instagram entirely so I would only have to navigate. One moment she was pulling alongside and passing coffee through her car window, the next she was texting me with a route correction, then she materialized again at my waypoint with her camera ready to snap, and then she would vanish into traffic again. I can barely remember Saturday morning because of brain fog, but by that point it was Lean Solid Girl who had assumed the position of leader of my stumbling team-of-one. She had taken on as much of the navigation and communication functions as it was possible for a supernumerary to do, and I was basically just executing Function #1, walking.

In our conclusion, a dramatic fall, two heartbreaks, a victory, “the cookie jar,” and what it feels like to be homeless.

Soiled But Unsullied: Star Course AAR, part I

“Amazing!” I thought. “If you piss yourself in black running tights, it just looks like sweat!” At least to the casual observer. I was hobbling at top speed through a raunchy part of the Mission district that could have been in a documentary called Dirty Harry’s San Francisco, and fully a quarter of the men there also reeked of urine, so why not me? 

This was the infamous Star Course, a 50-mile (80km) ruck race. In teams of two to five, athletes find their way on foot to a long list of waypoints in any order they choose and report back to the start point within 20 hours. 

At 10am and still only halfway through the course, I was now alone and behind schedule. I had begun the previous night before in a team of four. We had walked through the night down the cliffs and beaches of San Francisco to an old missile base-turned-park 25 miles away, but near first light the team was in trouble. The others had run a half-marathon a couple weeks before and then put their house on the market that very day. They decided to brave the race anyway, but they were starting out on half a tank at best and withdrew once they knew they couldn’t make the 20-hour cutoff time. 

I was marching on alone, still energetic but far behind schedule, but that was not my real problem. No, far worse was that I faced a return trip of 25 miles in broad daylight and needed to drink water by the liter with virtually no bathrooms. Well, more accurately, no bathrooms that would be open to me and—now that every single second mattered—without deviating off course every hour, maybe buying something, and waiting in a line. 

I was seized by the full horror of the problem soon after I gulped down a cup of coffee brought by the angelic Lean Solid Girl. I bottoms-upped a venti breakfast blend without breaking step and felt like a million bucks for about ten minutes, when I understood that I had swallowed a time bomb. In fact, more like a grenade with no pin. In the distance I spotted a baseball diamond and ran for it, but I was much, much too late. There was only time to make sure that the man walking the Boston terrier did not witness my humiliation.

And then it was over. Taking stock of my situation, I found it not all that bad. Yes, I had pissed in my own clothes in public view, but on the plus side, I no longer had to go to the bathroom. Also, I would be walking along I-280, under bridges and into San Francisco, where people defecate on sidewalks so routinely that there is a specialized navigational app to help the discriminating pedestrian avoid human excreta. No one would look twice at a homeless-looking man in a motley ensemble of dirty military surplus and tights soaked with what might or might not be sweat. For sheer human deviance, I might as well have been in the Times Square of the pre-Giuliani years, except that in kindly San Francisco people would be too polite to stare or comment if they suspected my true condition.

And suspect they did. I am certain of it. The elderly Chinese woman walking near the underpass had clearly seen a few things in her time and knew something was up with my tights. The charming French couple at the Moraga Steps seemed to smile a little tensely as I approached. But so what? I would never see any of them again, and now that whole problem was solved. It really is true that once the bounds of decency are first broken and a taboo is ignored, further inhibition collapses swiftly and totally. I would refine my technique a bit, making sure that both legs appeared equally “sweaty” and keeping as much as possible out of my boots, but I was back in the race. I still had to navigate 20 more miles in 5 hours and hit ten more waypoints, but I had moved the dial back down from Completely Hopeless to just Almost Definitely F***ed.

Continue to Part II