Back in the mid-1980s a catalog arrived from a mail order firm calling itself “Banana Republic.” After a few pages perusing the booklet, I was smitten. The catalog had all the kinds of stuff I like. There were classic khaki pants, a neat photojournalist vest, a gear bag to beg for, heavy cotton shirts styled like the ones Gable and Grainger wore in a couple of African safari films, and there was this heavyweight cotton hat with a large brim called the French Bush Hat. Now years before in an army surplus store I’d seen a hat that looked exactly like the one in the catalog. The hat was in a bin filled with all sorts of WWII paraphernalia and when I saw it I thought, This is perfect for the Texas Brushlands. The only problem was the hat was too small for my head. I’ve always had a hard time finding hats that fit and even XL sizes are sometimes tight. The hat in the surplus bin was a size Small. I was disappointed but after looking through all the bins to see if per chance I could find a size XL I gave up and until that catalog arrived had not thought about it.
Apparently, this particular style of hat was used by French forces in Indochina during the late 1940s. It might have been employed in other campaigns as well, but this is not a historical piece so let’s talk about the usefulness of this hat for places where the sun is fierce and the days are long. I ordered a French Bush Hat and the first one that arrived was marked XL but it must have been made for Lilliputians because it didn’t fit. I returned the hat and Banana Republic apologized and said they were getting another shipment with sizes more appropriate to American heads. About a month or so later I ordered another hat and the one that arrived was perfect. Traditional khaki with a heavy mesh burlap inner layer, the hat was simple yet elegant and timeless. So, of course, I ordered two more. Now I wish I’d ordered ten more! That was 26 years ago and I put one hat and then the next through several thousand miles of sun, wind, dust, thorns, rain (it does rain here occasionally), and now I’m on the last of the three. Actually, this third hat alone has journeyed across deserts, mountains, jungles, forests and of course brushlands too.
Unfortunately, the hat I have—the official Banana Republic French Bush Hat I bought decades ago—is as endangered as the Texas Horned Lizard. Ebay has a French Bush Hat now and then but they are invariably Munchkin size. You see, somewhere along the line Banana Republic morphed from the great adventurous mail order house it was into just one more mono-dimensional and boring shopping mall store. Just like several hundred other mono-dimensional, boring, yawn, yawn, yawn….
So here I am doing my best to keep this ol’ threadbare rag of a hat alive though I fear its days are numbered. Too bad some entrepreneur doesn’t decide to resurrect something paralleling the hat in the photos. The heavy-weight burlap mesh acts as insulation much the same way that an ice chest keeps its contents cool even on the hottest days. Remember this isn’t a thin piece of gear but a stalwart defense against el sol. Even so, the cotton breathes and the three-inch brim keeps the sunlight away from the eyes, ears and nose. Remember too that nothing suggests an impending case of skin cancer better than those gimme-caps you see a lot of folks wearing these days. Fashioned after baseball caps, I guess, they do nothing to protect the ears and the side of the face from sunburn. By-the-way, the ears are extremely sensitive to sunburn and if you ever see a dermatologist that’s the first place checked when examining your head for signs of cancer.
Maybe somebody knows of a source for these hats. If you do then send me an email and I’ll share it with everyone else who visits the blog. These are darn good hats!