Hugo Chavez’s red beret: Military hat history and how they got so drab?

Military Hats Used to Be Splendid Fashion Statements. What Went Wrong?

Military Hats Used to Be Splendid Fashion Statements. What Went Wrong?

Answers to your questions about the news.
Oct. 8 2012 5:12 PM

When Did Military Hats Get So Boring?

A mini-Explainer on Hugo Chavez’s beret and the decline of fashionable martial headwear.

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez raises his arms.
Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez

Photo by Leo Ramirez/AFP/Getty Images.

Hugo Chavez won a third term as president of Venezuela on Sunday night. After his victory, the leftist leader appeared before a crowd of supporters, some of whom wore red berets. The hat has become a symbol of Chavez’s leadership and a nod to his past as an army paratrooper. Soldiers used to wear bold, colorful headwear. When did military hats get so boring?

Around 100 years ago. Eighteenth- and 19th-century military hats were splendid fashion statements. British soldiers wore tall hats with feathers or fur. French fighters had blue tricorns with white piping. The Ottoman Janissary corps wore high, narrow hats, often with a sort of cape flowing from the top. During the American Civil War, swashbuckling soldiers known as “Zouaves” wore Turkish-style fezes with flowing tassels. Some fashion historians think these eye-catching get-ups were intended to make a soldier look terrifying and larger-than-life to the enemy. Some armies took intimidation through fashion quite seriously. As late as 1914, a German unit wore skulls emblazoned on their caps.

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Such hats were fine when warfare was a largely ritualized affair. Eighteenth-century armies typically marched onto a battlefield, shuffled into formation, then blasted away at one another at close range. In the 19th century, however, war changed dramatically. Urban combat and guerrilla tactics became the norm, and artillery fire threatened soldiers day and night. An 18-inch hat became an unwieldy and conspicuous luxury that soldiers could no longer afford. Over the course of the 1800s, furry or feathered hats were restricted to officers and eventually faded out almost entirely. Conservative hats like peaked caps or side caps became the rule. The beret now seems to be the most popular military hat worldwide.

Fancy military hats are still around, particularly in the United Kingdom, but they’re limited to parades and other noncombat situations. The British Life Guards, for example, sport helmets adorned with long plumes of horsehair, and the Yeoman of the Guard watch over the queen in wide-brimmed black hats, but you won’t see her majesty’s armed forces heading into battle with such headwear anymore.

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Brian Palmer covers science and medicine for Slate.