French Kepis

The History of the French Kepi – 1852—1915

The kepi evolved from the shakos of the 18th century. Shakos were tall hats made of pressed felt and leather. They featured metal badges, chinstraps, and often some sort of decorative plume. They provided protection from sword cuts and blunt impact, but afforded no ballistic resistance. In addition, shakos grew unpopular with the troops, because of their size and weight.1

In the 1840s, the French Army began to revise its headgear. First, a lighter shako, called the Casquette d’Afrique, was introduced for wear in France’s African colonies. This shako was made of felt and had a more streamlined shape.2 Later, the Casquette was combined with a visored cap called the bonnet de police a’visiere to create a new style of smaller, lighter hats. These smaller caps were called “kepis,” after the German word kappe, for cap.3

The French Army introduced its first official kepi in 1852, which resembled the Model 1840 shakos. The Model 1852 was shorter – 12cm tall – and softer, with a rectangular top. By 1867, most French soldiers preferred the kepi, and an 8cm tall kepi permanently replaced the shako. In 1873, a rounded-top model replaced the Model 1867 kepi.4

France introduced a stiffer version of the 1873 kepi in 1874 for the cavalry. This new version combined elements of older shakos, such as a leather top, metal fittings, and a front cockade. While it received much criticism, this hybrid version remained in use until 1912, and continues to be used by the St. Cyr Military Academy and the National Gendarmerie’s Republican Guard unit.5

In 1884, the Army created a new kepi with a less conical shape than the 1873. Like the previous models, its forward-leaning shape echoed the shakos used earlier in the 19th century.6 These Model 1884 kepis became standard issue to enlisted men and NCOs. Officers, however, had more elaborate versions. Between 1885 and 1905, they favored a style of kepi known as “Saumur” or “foulard,” characterized by a wider top, with a loose turban – the colored fabric around the top of the cap. A smaller, more cylindrical version with a tighter turban replaced the “Saumur” style, in 1905 known as the “polo” style, which was worn by officers up to and during the First World War.7

Prior to the war, the French military attempted to modernize its uniform by producing a number of experimental designs. The first uniform board, led by General Gillian, head of the cavalry service, decided on navy blue as the color for a new uniform. Tested in 1903 by the 8th Company of the 28th Line Infantry Regiment, this uniform received positive reviews, but was ultimately rejected.8 A second trial in 1906 produced a uniform in a bluish-gray color. The kepi had an oval shape, similar to those worn at the time by the Spanish army.9

The “Commission for the Transformation of Uniforms” undertook a third attempt to update the French uniform starting in 1910. They chose a gray-green color, called réséda, which was similar to the field-gray color adopted by Germany in 1910. The réséda kepi retained the “polo” shape of the officer’s kepis, but with a new braided stripe, gilt-ring chinscales, and a new system of rank insignia. Though the réséda uniform was a marked improvement in camouflage, its detractors complained about how radically different from the traditional French tricolor it was – and how similar to the uniform of France’s main enemy, Germany – so it, too, was rejected.10

The French Army then asked Edouard Detaille, a military painter and one of the chief opponents of the réséda pattern, to create his own design. He based his proposed kepi on the “polo” pattern and retained the traditional color patterns. The “Detaille” kepi, however, did have some improvements. He replaced the fabric crown with leather, providing greater protection from rain, and replaced the chinstrap with a buckled version that was more durable and practical than the sliding version used on the Model 1884. The military board also rejected Detaille’s uniform, mainly for economic reasons. Thus, the French Army entered World War I in August 1914 wearing their brightly colored M1884 and “polo” kepis, with only a blue-grey cover to provide camouflage.11

In 1915, after the Battle of the Marne, France was forced to acknowledge the need to modernize its army. The Army chose a “tricolor” cloth a few weeks before the start of the war, but uniforms were never issued. The dyes to make the blue, red, and white threads came from German companies. After the outbreak of war, however, France acquired blue and white dyes from subsidiary companies within France. The resulting color, called horizon-blue, became the official uniform color for French forces during World War One. The Army introduced simplified Kepis, also made of horizon-blue material, due to war shortages.12

Following the introduction of the Adrian steel helmet in 191513, the kepi saw a great reduction in use. Its size and shape made them impractical to carry on the battlefield, so most troops replaced it with a folding forage cap. Officers, however, continued to wear kepis when not in combat.

“The History of the French Kepi – 1852—1915”: Brian McInturf