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Wardrobe Why: What's so cool about pith helmets?

November 3, 2009 | 12:30 pm

Rage_pith
As a former game show question-and-answer man, I always appreciate finding out the "why" of our wardrobe choices. And a few weeks ago, when I was wandering about Carmel-by-the-Sea looking for cuff links, a chance detour into the the Carmel Hat Co. yielded not only a dapper looking straw Scala for my balding pate, but the explanation behind the instantly recognizable staple of jungle and tropical excursions known as the pith helmet (which the Fairchild Dictionary of Fashion also calls a "topee" or "topi").

According to the husband and wife owners Mary San Marcon and Chris Estrella -- who've been married 31 years and owned the postage-stamp-sized chapeau shop (it's less than 400 square feet) in the Doud Arcade for the last 16 of those -- the virtue of the solid yet lightweight domed head gear lies in the thick layer of solid material underneath the thin layer of fabric: pith or cork (essentially a layer of tree bark).

"Originally what they would do is soak the helmet in water overnight," San Marcon explained. "And then it would keep your head cool as the water evaporated slowly throughout the day."

While I didn't think it was quite the appropriate headgear for that evening's black-tie wedding, it fits in nicely with the explorer/desert military vibe that labels like Versace and Galliano had embraced for their Spring/Summer 2010 men's runway collections in Europe earlier this year. 

Now, I'm not advocating that when next spring rolls around everyone should chuck that stingy brim fedora and go all safari, but if global warming trends continue, a tree bark topper is certainly one low-tech, old-school option for keeping a cool head with a dash of retro-explorer style.

The Carmel Hat Co. at the Doud Arcade, Carmel-by-the-Sea, Calif.  (831) 625-9510.

-- Adam Tschorn

Photo: The Carmel Hat Co.'s stock of pith helmets includes a style historically associated with British troops in South Africa and Afghanistan, center, and a lower-profile style, right, more common in India and known as a "Bombay bowler." $48.50 each. Credit: Adam Tschorn / Los Angeles Times

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