The Many Lives of Bucket Hats

Back view of a person in a bucket hat
Image credit: Charles Deluvio on Unsplash

Bucket hats are a strange garment to get your head around — or, maybe more accurately, to get around your head. This is mostly down to how goofy they look. Regardless of their styling, who made them, or how they’re worn, bucket hats are inherently silly, and therein lies their charm. 

Being a little ridiculous is an integral part of why these hats work. Any given wearer is either leaning into the oddness of the look (consciously or otherwise) or they’re playing against it. The former group mostly consists of post-office-bound seniors and tourists in cargo shorts, while the latter includes Brad Pitt during his bearded grunge phase, plus all those Gen-Z kids who keep saying my New Yorker tote is ‘cheugy’.

This gives bucket hats the odd quality of having an ultra-specific look that nevertheless carries a wide array of associations. This feels almost like a contradiction in terms, and perhaps appropriately allows the bucket hat to evoke ostensibly contradictory associations. They’re somehow worn equally by preps and rebels, dorks and steezes, outdoor types and urbanites, the au courant as well as fashion’s uninformed.  

The lid in question — which consists simply of a soft crown and wide, floppy brim — also boasts an array of names, many of which aptly reflect its incongruous nature. Depending on where you are and who you ask, the bucket hat is also called a fisherman’s hat, Irish country hat, or session hat. Based on the use or season you might also hear them referred to as either sun- or rain hats. 

Soldier in a bucket hat
Image credit: Tullio Saba / Public domain

Then there are the military varieties, which is where the compellations really kick-off. An early US Navy variety, which dates back as far as 1886, came to be known as a Dixie cup for their passing resemblance to the disposable paper container of the same name, or (even more endearingly) as a Daisy Mae. The Israeli army is known to wear a floppy brimmed style known as a tembel- or Rafael hat (after general Rafael Eitan). Wide brimmed varieties worn by British and US special forces are called bush hats or boonie hats (boonies for short) and during the Vietnam War, with which they are perhaps most widely associated, they also came to be known as giggle hats. 

These giggle hats have been put to use in grave military contexts for a long enough time that one might think their origins lie somewhere in modern warfare. However, according to Steven Jones, a British milliner who spoke on the subject to the Guardian, these are ‘the most ancient of hats. If you look back to the 14th century there are, essentially, bucket hats. You have something that goes over your head to protect your hair, and the brim, which is to protect your face.’

The sou’western hat, that wide-brimmed hero of many an inclement storm and unnerving film, is another clear precursor. But most sources point to early twentieth-century Ireland as the point of origin for the contemporary fisherman’s hat, where they were worn by farmers and — you guessed it — fishermen. These working men favoured hats made of wool or tweed since they were easy to wash and fold away into a pocket, while their high lanolin content made them handy in wet weather. 

It was in the 1960s that bucket hats first became trendy, when, as with so much workwear and militaria, they entered civilian wardrobes via a group of young people who were repurposing symbols of war and the working class and putting them to their own novel ends. The college campus, therefore, became a natural home for the bucket hat and it duly turned into a preppy staple around this time. 

Run DMC wearing bucket hats
Jason Mizell (aka Jam Master Jay) and Darryl McDaniels (aka DMC) of Run-DMC wearing bucket hats
Image credit: Jeff Pinilla / CC BY 3.0

From the ’70s, toward the tail end of that decade and beyond, the bucket hat was taken up by hip-hop, perhaps the first subculture that made it truly cool. As preps and hippies had once repurposed military surplus, so too did Bronx-based B-boys and girls take preppy and high-fashion staples and make them their own. Think, for instance, of the Lo Life movement or Dapper Dan’s bootleg luxury wear. The bucket hat proved a natural fit. 

Brands were eager to cater to this new demographic. Kangol started making bucket hats around the time hip-hop was first kicking off in the ’70s and by the late ’80s, hats accounted for 20 percent of the sales for the streetwear brand Stüssy.

In the decades since, music has consistently been the source of more boonie-based trends. While it continues to enjoy the endorsement of many an MC (even as baseball caps have become the hip-hop hat of choice), session hats were also taken up by the UK rave scene of the ’80s and ’90s, and by various pop stars of the early 2000s. Today the trend continues thanks to global superstars like Billie Eilish, Dua Lipa, and Rihanna, and in more regional variants like the kwaito scenes of Southern Africa.

As odd a style choice as the fisherman’s hat may seem, its famous fans are numerous and wildly diverse. From its debut atop Big Bank Hank of Sugar Hill Gang in ‘Rapper’s Delight’ — the first-ever rap video — the bucket hat has regularly graced the heads of rappers including the members of Run-DMC and the Beastie Boys, plus LL Cool J, Method Man, Jay-Z, and Tyler, The Creator. Across the pond and from a different musical genre, they’ve also long been signatures for Liam Gallagher and Reni of Stone Roses fame. 

Bob Denver on Gilligan’s Island in a bucket hat
Bob Denver of Gilligan’s Island wearing his siganture hat
Image credit: Pikrepo

In the world of TV and film, bucket hats have typically signalled a certain kind of haplessness, first embodied by ex-navy man Gilligan (Bob Denver) on Gilligan’s Island, the popular American sitcom about a group of castaways that first aired in the 1960s. From here followed Lt. Colonel Henry Blake from M*A*S*H and Jimmie Walker’s ‘J.J.’ on the Norman Lear sitcom Good Times. The same rules applied on the big screen with the likes of Bill Murray in Caddyshack, Sean Connery in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, and Peter Sellers’ Inspector Clouseau in The Pink Panther and its many sequels.

Behind the scenes, bucket hats have long been a go-to for Woody Allen, while writer Hunter S. Thompson — along with Raoul Duke, his protagonist in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas — also sported one on the regular. 

Should you wish to join these boonie-bearing ranks, you do face the challenge of finding the right one. They come in a wide range of prices, from bargain varieties on Amazon to designer takes by Prada and Louis Vuitton. They can also be notoriously difficult to size, meaning you’ll likely have to return a few or try them on in person. But, like the fisherman they’re named for, be sure to keep casting a line and the right one is bound to come along.

Vintage men digging in bucket hats
Image credit: National Archives and Records Administration / Public domain

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