smartening up


[key-pee, kep-ee]

The kepi is a cap with a flat circular top and a visor (American English) or peak (British English). The word came into the English language from French, in which it is written with an acute accent: képi. It can be translated as "small cap".

French usage

It was formerly the most common headgear in the French Army. The kepi's 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 heavy 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 dry and curled up when drying out. 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 their kepis behind the lines.

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 seen being 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 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 have however discarded their dark blue kepis, adopting a low peaked cap. The reason given was that the kepi, while smart and distinctive, was inconvenient in vehicles.

French customs officers (douaniers) and the Gendarmerie still wear kepis for normal duty. 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 and corporals)
dark blue (NCO and officers)
white (privates and corporals)
red (NCO 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

In the United States, the kepi is most often associated with the American Civil War era, and into the Indian Wars. The first official version was introduced for the U.S. Army in 1858. It bore scant resemblance to the current neat French pattern and was instead a rather baggy imitation in dark blue without the distinctive sunken top. It gave rise to a number of methods of wearing, most of which looked unmilitary. Officially called a forage cap, it was nicknamed 'bummers cap' by troops, being described as being 'shapeless as a feedbag'. Despite this, it became the most common form of cap worn by U.S. regulars and volunteers during the American Civil War and is characterised in films such as Gettysburg, Gods and Generals and Glory. It was also worn by many Confederate troops in dark blue, various shades of grey and butternut. A famous wartime commander who habitually wore this cap was Confederate General Thomas J. "Stonewall" Jackson, who wore his plain dark blue round-visored forage cap, a reminder of his days as a former instructor at the Virginia Military Institute, until it was almost falling apart. He was subsequently presented with a new grey forage cap, with gold braid, which he was wearing when he was mortally wounded on the first evening of the battle of Chancellorsville on May 1, 1863.

The chasseur cap was also popular. A close copy of the French kepi, it had a sunken top and squared visor. In the North, it was often called the 'McClellan cap' after Union commander of the Army of the Potomac, G.B. McClellan. Civil War versions were often plain coloured dark blue or grey shade, however some units wore coloured variants, a few illustrative examples being:

  • U.S. - 14th NY (from Brooklyn)- dark blue base, red sides, dark blue top, red circular insert
  • 12th NY - 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 (Note: Also used forage caps)
  • 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
  • Winchester Zouave Cadets (of South Carolina) all red
  • Kentucky Brigade cavalry - all yellow
  • Alexandria Rifles (of Virginia) - dark green.

The chasseur cap was standard issue in 1861 for New York infantry regiments which did not have their own special uniform. Post-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 U.S. introduced a revised blue dress uniform in 1902, the kepi was discontinued in favour of a conventional visor cap with wide top and steep visor.

The Army's current field cap, with its flat top and visor, may be a variation of the kepi. It was adopted after World War II and during the 1950s was "blocked" with heavy starching and ironing until its replacement with a baseball-style cap during the Vietnam War. The present-day cap was reintroduced in the 1980s with the adoption of the old-style BDU uniforms and was retained when the ACUPAT digital-pattern cammoflague uniforms were introduced in 2005.

Usage elsewhere

The practical nature and relative cheapness of the kepi made it a popular military headdress from the mid-nineteenth century on. 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. Many Latin American armies wore kepis in the late 19th and early 20th centuries which were close copies of the French model. 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. 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 Norwegian armed forces used kepis until World War II and retains them for the full dress of officer cadets.

In Switzerland, the kepi was worn as a part of the dress uniforms by higher 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 higher staff officers (Brigadier general and higher).

In Sweden, the kepi has been used with several uniform types. The most common was the grey kepi, mössa m/23, worn as part of the field uniform of the 1923 pattern and the blue/dark blue kepi, mössa m/1865-99, 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 shortlived 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 Mahe, 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 Pondicherry 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.

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 at 2006 they can still be worn at official functions.

The kepi formed the male standard headgear of uniformed British Rail 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.

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