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French Army kepi

The kepi (English pronunciation: /ˈkɛp/ or /ˈkp/) is a cap with a flat circular top and a visor (American English) or peak (British English). Etymologically, the term is a loanword of the French képi, itself a respelled version of the Alemannic Käppi: a diminutive form of Kappe, meaning "cap". In Europe, this headdress is most commonly associated with French military and police uniforms. In North America, it is usually associated with the United States Civil War, as it was worn by soldiers on both sides of the conflict.

1942 portrait of Charles de Gaulle in the Free French Forces wearing a kepi

French army - historic

The kepi was formerly the most common headgear in the French Army. Its predecessor originally appeared during the 1830s, in the course of the initial stages of the occupation of Algeria, as a series of various lightweight cane-framed cloth undress caps called casquette d'Afrique. These were intended as alternatives to the heavier, cloth-covered leather French Army shako. As a light and comfortable headdress, it was adopted by the metropolitan (French mainland) infantry regiments for service and daily wear, with the less practical shako being relegated to parade use. In 1852, a new soft cloth cap was introduced for campaign and off-duty. Called bonnet de police à visière, this was the first proper model of the kepi. The visor was generally squarish in shape and oversized and was referred to as bec de canard (duck bill). This kepi had no chinstrap (jugulaire). Subsequent designs reduced the size of the cap and introduced chinstraps and buttons. The kepi became well known outside France during the Crimean War and was subsequently adopted in various forms by a number of other armies (including the U.S. and Russian) during the 1860s and 1870s.

In 1876, a new model appeared with a rounded visor, as the squared visor drooped when wet and curled when drying. The model used in World War I was the 1886 pattern, which was a fuller shape incorporating air vents.

By 1900 the kepi had become the standard headdress of most French army units and (along with the red trousers of the period 1829-1914) a symbol of the French soldier. It appeared in full dress (with inner stiffening and ornamental plume or ball ornament) and service versions. Officers' ranks were shown by gold or silver braiding on the kepi. The different branches were distinguished by the colours of the cap - see the table. Cavalry normally wore shakos or plumed helmets, reserving red kepis with light or dark blue bands for wear in barracks. General officers wore (and continue to wear) kepis with gold oak leaves embroidered around the band.

In 1914 most French soldiers wore their kepis to war. The highly visible colours were hidden by a blue grey cover, following the example of the Foreign Legion and other North African units who had long worn their kepis with white (or more recently khaki) covers in the field. With the adoption of sky-blue uniforms and steel Adrian helmets in 1915 to replace the conspicuous peace time uniforms worn during the early months of war, the kepi was generally replaced by folding forage caps. Officers, however, still wore kepis behind the lines.

French Kepis. From upper left to bottom right: French Army, French police (before they were replaced by peak caps in mid-1980s), French Foreign Legion, unrelated RATP hat, French Gendarmerie, French Army

Following the war the kepi was gradually reintroduced in the peacetime French army. The Foreign Legion resumed wearing it during the 1920s; initially in red and blue and then in 1939 with white covers on all occasions. The bulk of the French army readopted the kepi in the various traditional branch colours for off-duty wear during the 1930s. It had now become a straight sided and higher headdress than the traditional soft cap. This made it unsuitable for war time wear, and after 1940 it was seldom worn except by officers. An exception was the Foreign Legion who, previously just one of many units that wore the kepi, now adopted it as a symbol.

Modern French usage

The decision following the 1991 Gulf War to end conscription in France and to rely on voluntary enlistment has led to a smartening up of uniforms and the reappearance of various traditional items for dress wear. This has included the reappearance in the army of the kepi which is now widely worn by all ranks on appropriate occasions. The French National Police discarded their dark blue kepis in 1982, adopting a low peaked cap. The reason given was that the rigid kepi, while smart and distinctive, was inconvenient for ordinary use and too high to be comfortably worn in vehicles.

White kepi of the French Foreign Legion

French customs officers (douaniers) and the Gendarmerie still wear kepis for ceremonial duty. Customs officers wear a baseball style cap (since 1994 with many variations) while French Gendarmerie introduced a "soft kepi" in the early 2000s. Within the army, particularly notable are the kepis of the French Foreign Legion, whose members are sometimes called Képis blancs (white kepis), because of the unit's regulation white headgear. Former cavalry units wear light blue kepis with red tops and silver braid (for officers) and insignia. Other colours include all dark blue with red piping (for artillery units), dark blue with red tops (line infantry) and crimson with red tops (medical). The "dark blue" of officers' kepis is actually very similar to black.

Corps Colour of band Colour of crown Braid and insignia
Infantry, Zouaves & Chasseurs-Paratroopers dark blue red gold
Tirailleurs light blue red gold
Shock Parachuters, Shock Commandos,
Supply & Quartermaster’s Corps
dark blue red silver
Cuirassiers, Dragoons, Hussars,
Tanks & Matériel
light blue red silver
Infantry Chasseurs black dark blue silver
Spahis light blue red gold
Artillery, Marines & Transmissions dark blue dark blue gold
Engineers & Bands black black gold
Légion étrangère white (privates, corporals and chief corporals)
black (chief corporals with more than 15 years service, NCOs and officers)
gold (infantry)
silver (cavalry)
Army Aviation blue blue gold
Medical Corps crimson red gold
Pharmaceutical Corps green red gold
Veterinarian Corps purple red silver
Dental Corps brown red gold

North American usage

Portrait of an unknown Union soldier wearing a forage cap during the American Civil War

An old Confederate kepi in a German museum

In the United States, the kepi is most often associated with the American Civil War era, and continued into the Indian Wars. Union Officers were generally issued kepis for fatigue use. A close copy of the contemporary French kepi, it had a sunken top and squared visor. It was often called a "McClellan cap", after the Union commander of the Army of the Potomac, G.B. McClellan. For field officers, the caps were often decorated in a French-influenced style, with a dark velvet band around the base and black silk braiding on the crown. The kepi was also popular with various state units and as privately purchased headgear; e.g., it was standard issue in 1861 for New York infantry regiments. The kepi is not to be confused with the model 1858 forage cap, which evolved directly from the shako used by the regular army earlier in the 1850s (see the design of the crown, chinstrap, brim, and buckle).[1] Essentially, the forage cap, described by some troops as "shapeless as a feedbag", was a less-expensive and more comfortable version of the earlier shako with the stiffening removed.[2] The forage cap became the most common form of cap worn by U.S. regulars and volunteers during the American Civil War, though it is most commonly associated with the eastern theater of the war, since western troops generally preferred broad-brimmed felt hats (see photos of Sherman's army parading through Washington D.C. at war's end). The forage cap appears in films such as Gettysburg, Gods and Generals, and Glory. Some Union units wore coloured variants, as some illustrative examples show:

  • 14th New York (from Brooklyn) – dark blue base, red sides, dark blue top, red circular insert
  • 12th New York – red base, grey sides, red top, white piping and later – dark blue base, light blue top and sides, white piping
  • 11th Indiana – all red cap
  • U.S. Sharpshooters – dark green (also used forage caps)

While some Confederate troops wore the forage cap (Confederate General Thomas J. "Stonewall" Jackson wore the plain dark blue round-visored forage cap from his days as an instructor at the Virginia Military Institute), Confederate uniform regulations specified a French-style kepi. These were to be trimmed as follows:

  • Confederate Regulars:
    • 1st pattern
      • Infantry – light blue base, grey sides and top
      • Cavalry – yellow base, grey sides and top
      • Artillery – red base, grey sides and top
    • 2nd pattern
      • Infantry – dark blue base, light blue sides and top
      • Cavalry – dark blue base, yellow sides and top
      • Artillery – dark blue base, red sides and top

The regulations were often ignored because of the scarcity of materials and the need for rapid production. The average Confederate kepi usually was a simple gray or butternut cap made of wool or jean wool. To save leather for shoes and accoutrements, by mid-war Confederate kepi brims often were made of tarred cloth; chinstraps were sometimes omitted. [3][4] Many Confederate units wore unique versions of the kepi. These included:

  • Winchester Zouave Cadets (of South Carolina) – all red
  • Kentucky Brigade cavalry – all yellow
  • Alexandria Rifles (of Virginia) – dark green

After the war the U.S. Army issued a series of kepi undress caps, characterised by their increasing smartness and decreasing practicality. The last model was issued in 1896. When the United States introduced a revised blue dress uniform in 1902, the kepi was discontinued in favour of a conventional visor cap with wide top and a steep visor.

The Army's current field cap, with its flat top and visor, is a variation of the kepi. It was adopted after World War II and was "blocked" with heavy starching and ironing until it was replaced with a baseball-style cap during the Vietnam War. The present-day Army cap was introduced in the 1980s with the adoption of the M81 BDU uniforms, and was retained when the ACUPAT digital-pattern camouflage uniforms were introduced in 2005.

South America

Chilean Army generals in their French-influenced uniforms: Gorostiaga, Lopetegui, Bulnes, Körner, Baquedano, del Canto, Cortes, Novoa.

During the Paraguayan War between Brazil, Argentina, and Uruguay versus Paraguay, Brazilian, Argentine and Uruguayan troops and officers primarily wore kepis (although many Brazilian troops wore brimmed hats, and Uruguayan and Argentine light infantry wore shakos). The Paraguayans mostly wore leather shakos, but senior officers were given kepis. Leather kepis were however issued as a forage cap to Paraguayan troops, and because of poor supply standards, were often seen in combat. With the exception noted below, the Chilean Army no longer wears kepis but during the War of the Pacific it was part of the standard army uniform. Similarly the kepi is no longer worn by the modern Peruvian armed forces and police but was part of the uniforms worn during the 19th and early 20th centuries. Today the following ceremonial units in both countries still use the kepi:

- in Chile the 4th Company of the 7th Reinforced Regiment "Chacabuco" and the 1st Historical Company of the 4th Reinforced Regiment "Rancagua":

- in Peru the Fanning Marine Company of the Peruvian Navy; and the National Police of Peru's Guards Inspector Mariano Santos Company. Both retain the War of the Pacific uniforms respectively of the Peruvian Navy and the Civil Guards of Peru.

Bolivia's 1st Infantry Regiment "Colorados" and the 2nd and 3rd Infantry Regiments of the Bolivian Army also wear the kepi as part of their full dress uniforms on major ceremonial occasions.

The Argentine National Gendarmerie (Gendarmería Nacional Argentina; GNA) members wears a green kepi as part of fatigue and full dress uniforms.


Usage elsewhere

Kepi of the Corps of Gendarmerie of Vatican City.

The practical nature and relative cheapness of the kepi made it a popular military headdress from the mid-nineteenth century on. Many Latin American armies wore kepis in the late 19th and early 20th centuries which were close copies of the French model. Other armies that favoured kepis during the final period of colourful uniforms that ended with World War I included the Danish, Portuguese, Dutch, Italian (officers only), and Romanian armies. Even the Japanese Army adopted French-style kepis for senior officers in full dress, as well as for their Gendarmerie units and military bands.


The Belgian Army had a distinctive form of kepi with a high back to it. This continued to be worn in black and silver by the Belgian Gendarmerie until the 1950s.


The Greek Army of the same period wore dark blue or green (the latter for cavalry) kepis, and continued the same style of headress in khaki when field uniforms of that colour were introduced in 1910. Officer cadets and NCO trainees still wear kepis as part of the full dress uniforms of their respective military academies.


The Norwegian armed forces used kepis until World War II and still retain them as part of the full dress of officer cadets.


In Spain, a version of the kepi (actually a low shako), the ros, is used by the Guardia Real (Royal Guard) for ceremonial functions. The Spanish 1887 regulation kepi or Teresiana was made of black oilcloth with a tortoise shell visor. This type of headdress was retained by the Civil Guard as its regulation kepi, worn on non-ceremonial occasions for normal police duties, until it was abolished under the 2011 revised regulations and replaced by a baseball cap.


General Henri Guisan of the Swiss Army wearing a Képi with rank insignia

In Switzerland, the kepi was worn as a part of the dress uniforms of senior NCOs (Sergeant major and above) and officers (with additional rank insignia) until the 1995 army reform (Swiss Armed Forces). Since then, it is only worn by senior staff officers (Brigadier general and higher).


In Sweden, the kepi has been used with several uniform types. The most common was the grey kepi worn as part of the M1923 field uniform and the dark blue kepi worn as part of the uniform types m/1886 and m/1895, and still in use by the Life Guards. Significantly such historic opponents of France as Germany and Britain, avoided the use of kepis, with only a few short-lived exceptions, such as for service in India during the 1850s-60s. During this time the Albert Shako was preferred. This may have been for practical rather than patriotic reasons, as the distinctive profile of the kepi would be likely to lead to confusion in battle.


In India, during the French colonial rule of Pondicherry, Yanam, Karaikal and Mahé, Kepis were worn by two kinds of policemen, the Armed and the Indigenous, differentiated by the colour of the kepis they wore. While the law and order forces wore bright red caps, the armed constabulary was conspicuous by its blue kepis. After Indian Independence, the former French colonial territory was integrated into the Union Territory of Puducherry and the bright red kepi continues to be the headgear of the constabulary — both for the local and the armed police signifying the cultural and administrative legacies left by the former colonialists.

Northern Ireland

A form of kepi is worn by female officers in the modern Police Service of Northern Ireland.

Non-military use

Kepis also found their way into the uniforms of numerous railway and streetcar operators in the United States. From there it was adopted by other public transport operators around the world, including Brisbane, Australia, whose drivers and conductors continued to wear distinctive white Kepis with black visors until 1961. Brisbane bus inspectors continued to wear black kepis with decorative braid until the introduction of a French blue kepi in 1987 Brisbane Transport replaced inspector's kepis in 1995, although as of 2006 they could still be worn at official functions. In the first decade of the 21st century, youngsters have worn a kepi simply as a fashion accessory (e.g. rapper Roc Royal from the pop-R&B band, Mindless Behavior).

The kepi was the standard headgear of uniformed British Rail male employees from the mid-1960s to the mid-1980s. Kepis are also worn by traditional student fraternities, also called Studentenverbindung, in Germany, Austria, Switzerland and Belgium. They are called Stürmer and are very colorful in appearance.

In the United States, the Nation of Islam's security/executive protection force, the Fruit of Islam, also wears a dark blue version of the kepi.

See also

Works related to at Wikisource

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