Globe-trotting and bucket hats have gone hand in hand for more than 130 years—but the humble protector of sunburned noggins has been taking a much deserved rest from beach scenes since 2008. That’s when it was last sighted on São Tomé, an island off the coast of Gabon in western Africa. Searching for the bucket hat—or any type of wide-brimmed sun hat, really—has become one of the world’s more daunting scavenger hunts. But it’s still not unwinnable, and in fact, according to hat-wearing style blogs like The Sartorialist , this summer could be the best season yet. So why is the bucket hat better than ever?
The history of the bucket hat dates back to 1882, when a British man named William Lettsom came up with the idea of wearing a broad-brimmed hat to protect his fair skin from the elements. On vacation in Kenya, Lettsom had tried wearing the local hat of woven palm fronds called a kaveta —which made him look like “an old-fashioned jockey” and certainly didn’t help with the sunburn.
He returned to England determined to come up with something better, says Claire Wilcox, historian at London’s Fashion and Textiles Museum. In 1912, William Lettsom patented his bucket hat design. And by 1913—just three years later—his pith helmet was a staple of the British military during World War I. “British soldiers would wear their pith helmets in the trenches to keep warm,” says Wilcox.
The bucket hat’s popularity is evident in its many aliases over the years: pith helmet, safari hat, bush hat, and even Indiana Jones -style khaki fedora. People simply couldn’t resist the protection, practicality, and style a wide-brimmed hat offered—in many cases during some of our culture’s most inspiring moments.