We don’t wear enough pith helmets these days.
I’m not advocating more Steampunk cosplay, though if that’s your thing, fine. But after two years in a row wearing my pith helmet to Wasteland Weekend, Disneyland and other outdoorsy locales, I must sing its praises. This thing is awesome.
Perhaps geeky and funny looking (the hat I mean… I know I’m a lost cause even without my Wasteland Weekend gear on) but I’d argue that’s because nowadays it’s so rare to see one worn. If you’re old enough you by now know the nostalgic embarrassment of looking back at the clothes and hairstyles that were popular when you were a teen. If you’re a teen? That day will come, I promise you. Coolness is in the eye of the beholder, and so in the end, an item of apparel must be rated on how well it performs its intended function.
In this sense, in the category of keeping one’s head protected from the sun and heat, the humble pith helmet (or appropriately enough, “sun helmet”) remains a masterpiece of design. It is lightweight, and fits to my head comfortably but because of its high crown leaves a spacious, ventilated interior that I just don’t get with a baseball cap or boonie hat. Heat beating on the outside does not transfer inside, and heat from my scalp disperses out. The wide brim shades face, neck, and ears. With the pith helmet on I find I don’t sweat as much as I would with any other headgear, or even no headgear at all. What sweat does occur tends to be swiftly absorbed with no nasty discolorations on the exterior.
That absorption effect actually brings up what is possibly the most interesting feature of the helmet, and one not generally known to today’s populace — the option of water cooling. You don’t want to try this with a cheap costume version, but a true pith helmet still retains an ability that was much appreciated by troops and civilians alike wearing them in the 19th and early 20th Century. Immerse it in water, let it soak, and as a trade off for a bit of extra weight you now have your own air conditioning system to carry around on top of your head. I experimented with this in the 100 degree heat of last year’s Wasteland Weekend and can confirm how nice that is. Hell, that interior I mentioned above had enough space I once even put ice cubes in it, re-donned the helmet and let them melt while I marched. None of this ended up staining or compromising the helmet in any way, which explains why it was so popular back in the day for not just enduring the sun but the hot rains of tropical climes.
There is one big admitted drawback to the helmet, which I suppose might explain why it has fallen out of fashion, and that is you can’t scrunch or collapse it. It’s much lighter than you might expect, but I ended up not taking it to Hawaii with me because of the bulk, which does not mix well with the baggage premiums of modern plane travel. Also despite its designation as a helmet and past military use, it was designed to stop weather and not bullets or swords… though I have twice been hit pretty hard while wearing it and while I felt the impact, the only damaging result was a dent that I easily popped back into place. Better that than my skull!
Now to close out this post, I’ll say that I originally bought my helmet because I do like how it looks and fits, and (as you may have noticed from past pictures) am not an overly fashion conscious individual. The practicality and functionality was a pleasant surprise. If you’re going to be outdoors in Sol’s embrace and are not afraid of a few funny looks, get one! They may laugh at first, but once the heat is on they will all be jealous of your quite literal coolness.
And just so I’m not too off topic this week — cowboy hats are awesome, too.