People have been getting worked up lately about those “Make America Great Again” hats worn by supporters of Donald Trump. You see them everywhere at right-wing rallies in America, worn by a motley collection of conspiracy theorists, racists and low-information voters, chanting things like “Lock her up”, “CNN sucks” and “Build the wall!”
The MAGA hat has become such a prominent symbol of xenophobia, white nationalism and misogyny that some people have likened it to the white hoods worn by members of the KKK.
It’s a pointed comparison, but I’m not sure it’s an apt one. After all, the Klan has a long and horrific history of racially-motivated oppression and murder. Donning a Klan hood grants its user anonymity, gives them a spectral, otherworldly appearance and links them to a frightening and brutal past. In short, those hoods are scary.
The MAGA hat, on the other hand, is more embarrassing than intimidating. Mirroring the president who inspired it, it is cheap, ugly and artificially coloured. It’s even kind of lumpy-Trumpy shaped. It’s meant to be a tribal, polarising symbol, but it’s not a particularly intimidating one. It gives off a vibe that’s more I’m with stupid than Fear me. With those things on top of their heads, the overweight and feckless people cheering on Donald Trump look more like the crowds at a Monster Truck, rather than a Nuremberg-style, rally.
That doesn’t mean that I don’t think those MAGA people and everything they stand for shouldn’t be loathed and opposed. I just think that the hats they have chosen to convey their message are of a very poor quality. And stupid. And not scary.
If they really wanted to look formidable, patriotic and fearsome, they would drop those little red polyester baseball caps and instead don a piece of headwear whose awe-inspiring destructive power has been completely understated and underrated throughout history:
Behold the pith helmet.
I’m sure you’ve seen one before – perhaps in an old painting or in a movie about the British Empire. Modern versions of them are still sometimes worn in formal military ceremonies.
Pith helmets aren’t very attractive by modern standards and if you have ever really taken the time to notice one before, you probably haven’t given it much thought. Why should you pay attention to some obsolete old relic of the British Empire?
Apart from looking dreadfully hot and uncomfortable, they are hardly the height of fashion. Beige and bell-shaped, a pith helmet sits high and heavy on a wearer’s head, looking as if it might topple over at any time.
On first glance, they appear to be just another triumph of form over function from an era when utterly impractical pieces of attire were entirely commonplace: petticoats, ascots, bustles, hoop-skirts and… pith helmets.
But don’t trust what you think you see when it comes to the pith. Despite its odd and uninspiring design, that humble little helmet played a huge part in shaping the modern world.
It was the hat that built an empire.
Despite its appearance, the pith helmet was actually a rather amazingly clever and practical – yes practical – piece of high technology. It was the iPhone of its day – something small that changed everything. No, actually it was bigger than the iPhone. It was like the internet. Something so fundamentally revolutionary and transformational that its influence can’t be easily measured.
It all started with a plant in India. The sola tree to be precise.
The trunk, or pith of the sola tree consists of a kind of spongey, cork-like material that the locals would use to mould into little figurines and other objects of art. British colonists in the mid-1800s found that pith could also be pressed into other, practical uses, such as the shell for a military helmet.
When treated and dried, pith was lightweight and durable. Similarly-shaped sun helmets had been in use by Spanish, German and French soldiers in their colonial exploits for many years already.
But the British version was different and better. It was lighter, while still maintaining a nice hard outer shell that could protect you from any unexpected instances of insurrectionist sepoys attempting to club you over the noggin from behind while you sat peacefully sipping your Earl Grey. It was also cheap to produce. Soon they were worn by British soldiers everywhere, especially in places with hot climates.
A pith helmet has small holes in the top – vents to help it breathe. The very thing that makes it look so awkward – how high it sits on your head – leaves room for air to circulate, preventing your scalp from getting too hot and sweaty.
Best of all, the pith helmet had a special, secret functionality that could help keep you extra cool in even the hottest of climates. After a long day of rounding up Hottentots or shooting Chinese nationalists protesting against the opium trade, all you had to do was drop your pith helmet into a bucket of water as you retired to your bungalow for the evening…
Overnight, the pithy material would absorb the water. Placed back upon your head in the morning for another day of taking up the white man’s burden, the water in the damp pith would slowly evaporate, giving a nice cooling effect. It worked even better when the sun was high in the sky, accelerating the evaporation. A good soaking would keep a pith cool for most of a day.
It was like having a personal air conditioner on your head.
The pith helmet was so effective at keeping its wearer cool that it made otherwise inhospitably sweltering environments tolerably comfortable. For a British empire intent on expanding to the four corners of the globe, it was a godsend.
Around the same time that the pith helmet became ubiquitous, the British also discovered that quinine, an extremely bitter but very effective anti-malarial, could be mixed into a tonic to transform it into a reasonably enjoyable concoction when combined with gin.
Sometimes history turns on the little things and the combination of the gin and tonic cocktail and the pith helmet swiftly became unlikely, but very effective partner tools of empire-building.
I think you could make a strong argument that, without the pith helmet, cold-weather Brits, unused to the heat and humidity of the global south, would never have had the fortitude or inclination to have conquered and ruled the various hot weather countries that would eventually make up the largest empire the world had ever seen.
Throughout the 19th and early 20th century, India, Kenya, South Africa, Rhodesia, Somaliland, Afghanistan, Singapore, Malaysia, the West Indies and many others all succumbed to the might of pith and gin and tonic. Nearly a quarter of the earth’s land surface wound up under British rule.
Perched on top of it all, was that humble little helmet.
British colonialism is a very touchy subject over here in Blighty. Many claim that British rule was mostly benign, spreading western values, technology and trade throughout the world. This is a popular perspective in England among those advocating for a hard Brexit, who believe Britain’s rightful place is alone, at the very top of the world order.
Many others, such as Indian politician and author Shashi Tharoor, in his book Inglorious Empire, hold an opposite point of view. Tharoor notes that nearly 35 million Indians died of famine and neglect during the Raj years. Many tens of thousands more were killed in conflicts with British soldiers. The tale is similar in other countries: tens of thousands of civilians were killed in concentration camps in South Africa; more than 100,000 dead in Kenya; hundreds of thousands more in China, Rhodesia, Sudan, the list goes on and one.
In image after image from this era of colonial oppression and massacre, you will see one common element – a pith helmet perched on top of the heads of white British soldiers as they methodically shoot down rebellious natives.
Britain is a different place today. No pith helmets. No empire. Not so much shooting down of brown people.
Although its role in forging history isn’t ever really talked about here in the UK, the pith helmet does maintain much of its legacy as a symbol of empire, colonialism and white triumphalism – especially in countries that were the victims of British expansionism. America’s first lady, Melania Trump was recently criticised for wearing a pith-style helmet on a trip to Africa. Maybe it was nothing more than just a politically tone-deaf oversight. Maybe it was a statement – I don’t know. She never apologised or addressed the issue.
I suppose Mrs Trump could have chosen to have worn a MAGA hat instead of a pith, but those cheap little things are made out of polyester and would have been less than useless in the African sun.
And that’s kind of the point.
If you’re going to make the decision to place something on top of your head, you should know a little bit about its history and its symbolism. And if you don’t know all of that, at least make sure the damn thing is at least useful as a hat.
That’s the problem with the MAGA. Unlike the mighty but morally problematic pith, it’s literally good for nothing. It’s a fraud. A cheap empty shell, worn by people who follow a cheap empty fraud of a man.
A hat can be terrifying or it can be ridiculous, but really it’s mostly just a reflection of the person underneath.