Sun Proof Sola Hat

Ever since reading Women Travelers, I’ve sort of felt the need for a pith helmet.  They are a fairly easy item to find, but every time I ran across one, I was not impressed with the quality.  I mean, did Gertrude Bell ride across Iraq wearing plastic and faux leather?  I think not.  But I recently found a hat actually made of pith, and I knew I’d found my hat.

To be honest, I knew nothing about pith helmets before I found this one.  I’ve had to do a bit of homework, and what I found was fascinating.  The hats were originally actually made from the pith of the aeschynomene aspera plant.  This plant was commonly known as the sola with the hats being called “sola topee” in Hindi.  The English thought they were saying “solar topee”, and so the name sun hat, or sun helmet, was also applied to the hat.

Hats made from sola pith were made mainly in India, but also in surrounding countries like Pakistan.  In places where the sola did not grow, other materials were used, like cork.

My hat is a style called the “Bombay Bowler.”  There is a photo of Churchill wearing one during WWII.  Pith helmets date back to the first half of the nineteenth century, but I could not find when this particular style originated.

My helmet is missing the inside band.  It would have covered the writing and gone nearly to the edge of the grey cloth you can see in the top right corner of my photo.

Can you tell that the grey cloth covers a heavy paper that is pleated?  That is to allow for additional ventilation.  There are also four holes that allow air to circulate.

Besides the inside band, this hat is also missing the chin strap which rested across the front brim.

These hats were worn by officials in the British Empire, but they were also available for civilians to purchase and wear.  Perhaps some woman traveler bought this one while traversing the East and brought it home to North Carolina.

13 Comments

Filed under Proper Clothing, Vintage Clothing

13 responses to “Sun Proof Sola Hat

  1. How wonderful. Did you find it at a flea market, eBay? I am just curious. It looks just great.

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  2. I’ve always loved pith helmets! And this one is marvelous! And looks fabulous too!!

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  3. You are looking very adventurous in that hat!

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  4. Love it…Abercrombie and Fitch and Brooks Brothers used to sell them to clients -they were outfiting for expeditions for menn and wpmen…i found a pith in a vintage shop in Washington DC-it was stamped / dated and name of client it was issued for / to -a few years later i happened upon the direct decendant(G Grand daughter)of it at a dinner party at my home..!!!???….the head band was attached so it floated -allowing air flow-and with detachable cotton slip for over it…and straps on either side to slide a scarf thru…needless to say – it was a happy evening with lots of stories re: its’ owner-everyone tried it on!!!!!

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  5. Thank you so much for clarifying the “solar topee” for me! I came across it in books when younger, and didn’t know what it was. When I learnt Hindi I found that the “topee” part is just the Hindi/Urdu word for “hat”, but didn’t understand how the “solar” part came into existence. I also wasn’t sure that the “pith helmet” and the “solar topee” were the same thing, or what pith helmets were made of. So you have cleared up everything with this post.

    Presumably the Urdu writing on your hat is recycled paper?

    Of course prior to 1947, Pakistan and India were not separate countries, so your hat is newer than that.

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  6. What a great photo of you in that hat!

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  7. Well, I’m not sure that you will start a new fashion trend, but you do look cute. I am not looking to buy one, though.

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