History: Officer Cadets Headdress




Photos above include the various styles of headdress worn by cadets at RMCC in 2016.

Headdress of the Royal Military College of Canada: A brief history

By 8057 Ross McKenzie- former Curator – RMC Museum

The history of uniforms makes for a fascinating study. Most items of military dress (however outlandish and impractical they might now be) originated as some simple, useful form of kit which, overtime, has become, “frozen in time” (tradition), and / or modified way beyond practical use (smartened-up!).



For many years Canadian army uniforms followed the pattern set by the British army. In the early days, when the defence of Canada depended on a small number of British Regulars and a much larger number of Canadian militiamen, there was a very real tactical advantage to wearing the similar uniforms. The threat of an American invasion eventually disappeared but by then the British style uniform had become the “tradition” and this ‘tradition’ was reinforced by the experience of two World Wars and the perceived need for standardized equipment and training throughout the British Commonwealth.

When the Canadian Military College opened in 1876 the Cadet Company was organized like an infantry battalion (albeit a small one) and the Cadet uniform was, with a few minor exceptions, the standard British / Canadian infantry uniform of the day.

At that time, infantry headdress and thus the College headdress, consisted of the 1869 pattern shako (or sometimes written as “chako”). It was worn in the field and, with the addition of a snappy, white, horse-hair plume, as full-dress for parade.

The undress or forage cap adopted for the Cadets was the Pillbox. In the British army forage caps had originated as simple round, cloth or knitted caps worn on fatigue duties (or when gathering forage for the horses) but they soon evolved (the smarten-up principal) into something more structured and impractical. Sometime in the 1830s the Kilmarnock cap or bonnet was introduced. It was a still wearable, but more structured piece of headdress. This in turn evolved into yet stiffer caps, some with, and some without peaks;, some fuller in the crown, and, for the cavalry and artillery –a small, stiff round cap, worn at a jaunty angle and held in place by a chin strap-the pillbox!

The adoption of the pillbox cap, which was not worn by the infantry, is one example of the College uniform deviating from the infantry norm. This cap was worn by cadets at the Royal Military Academy, Woolwich (the British army school for training future Engineer and Artillery officers). RMC of Canada’s first Commandant, Colonel Hewett, was a graduate of Woolwich, and like Woolwich, the College at Kingston offered an academic programme based on science and engineering. It is reasonable to assume that Hewett chose the pillbox cap as the undress cap for RMC to echo the practice at Woolwich.

In the early years the Cadet undress cap had two forms. Cadet Officers had a larger, peaked version, which was worn square on the head, which the others wore the (still current) peakless type at the jaunty angle (i.e. touching the right ear). It is not clear when Cadet Officers stopped wearing the peaked cap but this change probably occurred sometime before 1900.

The original winter cap was the standard British/ Canadian army round fur cap which sometime in the 1890s was changed to a wedge-shaped one. Made from Astrakhan wool the cap became known simply as, “The Astrakhan” and was in use up until  the 1970s when it was replaced by, what is still the current issue, the standard CF black polyester imitation of the original fur cap.

In 1878 the British (and thus too the Canadian) army changed the pattern of its headdress from the Shako to the Helmet. Inspired by the German spike-helmet, the Pickelhaube, the British version was made from cork (pith) and came in two types; the Home Service Helmet, which was covered in blue (or for rifle regiments- green) cloth and the Foreign Service Helmet (for wear over-seas), which was stained, white (later stained light brown or khaki for active service). There were minor differences between infantry and cavalry helmets. The British helmets had removable spikes (Balls for the Artillery and the Service Corps and a Globe for the Marines). These helmets- being inspired by the successful German army of the day- followed the ‘smarten-up’ principal of uniform evolution, but also gave a nod to some practical use as the Foreign Service pattern Helmet gave some protection from the sun in the many tropical climes garrisoned by British troops.

The Canadian army only adopted only one pattern of Helmet- the white Foreign Service pattern- which in Canadian usage was known as the Universal Pattern Helmet. (Note- although sometimes called ‘pith helmets’, the correct name for these helmets is the ‘Universal Pattern Helmet’. Pith helmets are any helmet made from ‘pith’ cork and can come in all sorts of shapes and forms. While all Universal Pattern Helmets are indeed Pith Helmets; not all Pith Helmets are Universal Pattern!)

About 1879 the College adopted the new Universal Pattern Helmet in place of the original Shako. As intended, it was worn as part of the field dress and as full-dress for parades. The Pillbox remained in use as the undress cap.

Eventually the impractical aspect of the Pillbox as a true fatigue or forage cap was realized, but rather than replace it, the Cadet uniform was supplemented with the then current infantry pattern forage cap- the Glengarry Cap. The Glengarry was worn by Cadets up until 1898 when it was replaced by a similar cap -the Field Service (or FS) Cap. The FS Cap began life as a practical piece of field kit as it could fold down, covering the soldiers head and cheeks and thus offer some protection from frosty weather. Following the ‘tradition’ principal of uniform evolution, the FS Cap survives as part of the Cadet uniform in its original form (retaining its fold-down capability long after it had ceased to be worn in the field) today as part of the No. 4 Order of Dress. In other branches of the Armed Forces (surviving still in the Air Force) the ‘smarten-up’ principal was in play, and the FS Cap, evolved into the Wedge Cap, or ‘wedgie’ which, like the Pillbox, now serves no practical purpose at all. A new version of the FS Cap-with bright red piping, was adopted in 2009 as part of a newly designed Cadet Dress-of-the-Day uniform, (introduced after a short period that had seen the abolition of the Battledress Jacket-the No. 5 Order of Dress- in favour of CF DEUs as Dress-of-the-Day) giving the Cadets yet another form of undress cap. The new version of the RMC FS Cap surprisingly retains its fold-down capability. For some unknown reason the leather chin strap originally worn with the FS Cap was discontinued. This results in the cap being worn square on the head, rather than at the jaunty (touching the right ear) angle of former days. The logic of having two near identical FS Caps- the traditional plain cap and the new cap with red piping is not at all clear.

Sometime after the Boer War the College adopted a Stetson type hat for actual field wear. Photographs show cadets wearing this type of hat, with one side pined up, working in butt-parties or out surveying. This type of hat was also in use before the Second World War, but has not been seen since.

In 1911, the Canadian army, deviating from British practice, adopted a new ‘standard’ headdress. The Universal Pattern Helmet was now replaced by the Wolseley Pattern Helmet. Like the Universal Pattern, the new helmet was made from ‘pith’ cork but it was lower and had a wider brim to give more protection to the neck. Like the Universal Helmet, when worn as part of full-dress, the Wolseley Helmet was coloured white and had the same removable spike (or ball). It could also be, “smartened-up,” by the addition of a coloured cloth wrap, the ‘puggree’.

Up until 1911 the Cadet uniform had, more or less, followed the dress of the army, but at this point the, “tradition,” factor came into play and the College, rather than change to the Wolseley Pattern Helmet, disregarded the Canadian army dress regulations and retained the Universal Pattern Helmet for full-dress.

Apart from the hiatus of the First World War, when the use of full-dress (i.e. scarlet tunics and Universal Pattern Helmets) was suspended, the College retained the Universal Pattern Helmet as the standard parade dress for all Cadets up until the outbreak of the Second World War.

The First World War was in fact the turning point that brought an end to the universal use of full-dress (i.e. red coats, blue trousers and helmets) in the British and Canadian armies. After the First World War only the regimental bands (and that at regimental expense) would parade in the pre-War full-dress uniforms. In Britain, the Guards Regiments, with their special ceremonial duties, would be the exception, and eventually in Canada, the same logic would apply to the R22eR preforming ceremonial duties at the Citadel in Quebec and to the Canadian Guard units performing ceremonial duties on Parliament Hill.

During the First World War the College cut back on academic programme and focused more on military training. As mentioned, the use of the full-dress uniform was suspended and the Cadets wore their blue undress tunic (known today as the No. 4 tunic) on parade. A new, peaked forage cap was adopted as parade headdress. This cap was blue with a black leather peak and was decorated with a red band. Cadets nicknamed this cap the, “Salvation Army Hat.”

Following the War, Major-General Sir Archibald Macdonell, an ex-cadet and the widely respected former Commander of the First Canadian Division, was appointed Commandant of the Royal Military College with the task of restoring the College to its former academic and military prominence. Along with the restoration of a vigorous, four-year academic programme, Sir Archie, applying the “tradition’ principal, restored the pre-War full-dress uniform. The ‘Salvation Army Hat” was out and the scarlet tunic, the Universal Pattern Helmet and the Pillbox cap were back. In the ‘between-the-Wars’ era the headdress worn by RMC Cadets was thus: the Universal Pattern Helmet for full-dress parades; the Pillbox for what could be called “semi-formal use”, such as for muster parades and walking-out, and the FS Cap for field use and as a dress-of-the-day cap.

As with the First World War, the Second World War caused a major disruption in the use of traditional uniforms. The only Class to enter RMC in wartime, known as the ‘Last War Class,” joined the College in 1940 and graduated in 1942. They were issued standard army Service Dress, vice Scarlets and Blue tunics, but, with a nod to RMC tradition, the Pillbox Cap was worn, which now, for the first time, was promoted to full-dress status for Parade Dress.

The College ceased its Cadet training function in 1942 and was utilized exclusively as the Army Staff College up until 1948.

RMC was reactivated as a Cadet training College in 1948 when it, along with the Royal Naval College of Canada at Royal Roads, were transformed into tri-service Canadian Service Colleges (CSCs). The uniforms adopted for Cadets at the two Canadian Services Colleges included, for full-dress, the Blue tunic (the pre-war RMC undress uniform promoted now to full-dress status) and, as a Dress-of-the Day uniform, the RCN Battledress jacket (or blouse) worn with the traditional RMC trousers. Headdress was reduced to just one item- the pre-War FS Cap, which, for a while, was worn with all orders of dress.

The third CSC, Collège militaire royal de St-Jean, opened in 1952 and, as part of the CSC system adopted the Cadet uniforms worn at the other two Colleges, i.e. the Blue tunic and FS Cap for both Parade and walking-out Dress and the Blue RCN Battledress Jacket, with FS Cap, as the Dress-of-the Day uniform.

In 1956/7, (in accordance with the very strong ‘tradition’ principal) the scarlet tunic and Pillbox cap were re-introduced at RMC and adopted by the other two Colleges as well. The pre-Second World War Cadet uniforms were now restored, but there was one important exception – the full-dress Universal Pattern Helmet- which, from about 1911 had been unique to RMC, was not re-introduced. The Pillbox Cap was again (just as it had been in 1940) promoted to Full-Dress status and was now worn by all Cadets with the three orders of dress for the Scarlets and (in its pre-war semi-formal role) with the Blue tunic which was now designated, No. 4 Order of Dress. The FS Cap was demoted from its full-dress (and walking-out) status back to its pre-war function as merely the Dress-of-the-Day headdress.

A few pre-War, Universal Helmets were still held by the College and in the 1960s and 70s, for specific events, such as for a Guard-of-Honour or for a Colour Party, they might occasionally be worn. It may have been this casual use of the old Universal Pattern Helmet that inspired the Toronto Branch of the RMC Club to purchase and donate one hundred Universal Pattern ‘type’ helmets to the College. [The 1964 movie “Zulu” generated great interest in the Zulu Wars and the British army of the 1870s. Re-enactors love to dress-up and manufacturers have now been offering reproduction Foreign Service Helmets for many years. These commercially available helmets vary in quality and authenticity. Many of the Helmets now in use at RMC differ slightly from the original Canadian Universal Pattern. A properly fitted Helmet was worn square on the head with the front brim coming just above the eyes. Some of the reproduction helmets have pointed front brims which block the wearer’s vision.] The donated Helmets were insufficient to re-equip the whole Cadet Wing so they were issued to Cadet Officers to replace the Pillbox Cap for Parade Headdress. This decision (driven by a half-hearted application of the “tradition” principal) remains the current usage. In full-dress the senior Cadet Officers parade in Universal Pattern Helmets while the remainder of the Cadet Wing parades wearing Pillbox Caps.

The use of a different full-dress headdress for Cadet Officers has resulted in the misconception that assumes that the Helmet is a badge of rank -rather than just a full-dress headdress. Accordingly there has been a tendency for Cadet Officers to appear wearing the Helmet when in undress (i.e. the Blue No. 4 tunic) or even in Dress-of-the-Day. Such usage is not in accordance with the traditional dress regulations.

A minor change in dress for RMC Cadets occurred about 1988 when the walking-out headdress, worn with the Blue (or No.4) tunic, was changed from the Pillbox back to the FS Cap (as had been the practice 1948-1956.)  [What the practice was at RR and CMR as regards the wearing of the Pillbox and the FS Cap is not known.]

Currently, as part of the Cadet uniform, RMC headdress includes: Universal Pattern Helmets; Pillbox Cap, FS Cap and the red-piped FS Cap.

The Band

The RMC Band is another subject that needs a separate discussion. Through ignorance of traditional norms of military dress the Band has taken to wearing the Wolseley Pattern Helmet as Parade headdress. Normally the band would parade in the proper regimental uniform –which for RMC would be either the Pillbox or the Universal Pattern Helmet.



Sikh officer-cadets at RMC

(The original article written by Ross McKenzie was completed prior to the approval of turbans for Sikh officer-cadets.)

Sikh officer-cadets at RMC, assisted in the creation of the military standard for turban wearers at military college(s)– the golden ribbon atop a black turban, and a black ribbon atop a blue one were chosen to resemble the traditional military headdress as closely as possible.


Update: 26288 Sarabjot Anand

The plan was to integrate the turban and ribbons colours as much as possible to the existing headdresses for RMC uniforms. This way, we won’t be reinventing the wheel and we would fit right in with the rest of the cadets at RMC when formed up in formation (i.e. parades).

1. When the rest of the RMC cadets are wearing Scarlets (with pillbox) we wear the black turban with the same gold ribbon that’s on the pillbox.

2. When the cadets are wearing Scarlets with pith helmet, a white turban is worn with a gold ribbon (the gold ribbon in this case is to match with the gold pith helmet cypher and spike). The white turban is to match the pith helmet.

3. When the cadets are wearing Scarlets (with glengarry), a black turban is worn by Sikh cadets with a red, white and black checkered ribbon. The ribbon matches the glengarry.

4. When RMC is told to form up in 4’s uniform with a pillbox, a black turban is worn with golden ribbon (same as Scarlets and turbans).

5. If cadets are wearing 4’s uniform with a pith helmet, a Sikh cadet will wear a white turban with gold ribbon that’s found on the pillbox. Again this gold ribbon is to match with the gold pith helmet cypher and spike.

6. When cadets are wearing 4’s uniform with a 4’s wedge, a Sikh cadet would wear a midnight blue turban with the no ribbon.

7. If a Sikh cadet is wearing a highland dress, a black turban is worn with a red, white and black checkered ribbon.

8. If a Sikh cadet is a highland piper, a black turban is worn and no ribbons.

9. Finally, when a Sikh cadet is wearing the 5’s uniform, a black turban is worn with the red ribbon. The black turban is for the corresponding wedge other cadets would wear and the red ribbon is to match the piping on the wedge.

I hope this will help explain the reasons when we decide to wear the golden ribbon atop a black turban and a black ribbon atop a blue one.

The turban was accepted as an ‘official’ headdress as soon as the CADWINS were signed and made official at the Mil Wing level in Jan 2015. We worked in conjunction with MWO Rideout to allow the amendment in the CADWINS become official. Keep in mind, we started standardizing the turban headdress at RMC in Sept 2014 however to fully have it in writing took till Jan 2015 when the new CADWINS were officially released.

26288 Sarabjot Anand