This paper will explore a prominent, global symbol of European colonial empire: the pith helmet. Focusing on France and French West Africa, I follow the white dome of the helmet as it moves between colony and metropole, from the heads of administrators and other French sojourners in the colonies, to their compatriots in France, where it served as an element of imperial propaganda. The helmet was also adopted by West Africans for whom it might serve as an extension of French power. The same garment also marked the limits of that power, as it slipped from French control to become the subject of creative reimagining in the hands of West African consumers. Despite its hard shell, then, the pith helmet was proved unexpectedly—and for French interests, undesirably—flexible in its significations.
Victoria L. Rovine is Professor of Art History at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She specializes in African textiles and dress practices. Her current project addresses the important roles of textiles and dress in the colonial-era interactions between France and French West Africa. She is the author of Bogolan: Shaping Culture through Cloth in Contemporary Mali (Indiana University Press, 2001 republished 2008) and African Fashion Global Style: Histories, Innovations, and Ideas You Can Wear (Indiana University Press, 2015).