US Army female drill instructor wearing a slouch hatThe slouch hat with the brim pinned on the side is an icon of the Australian military, and it used to be common in service branches around the world, including the United States Army. But today, female drill instructors (called Drill Sergeants in the Army and Military Training Instructors in the Air Force) are the only US military personnel authorized to wear the distinctive head covers.

The felt slouch hat—nicknamed for the practice of wearing it at an angle—became common among rough outdoorsmen in the American West in the nineteenth century. During the Civil War, both Union and Confederate troops wore them—but only in the sparsely populated Western theater. Manhattan resident Colonel Theodore Roosevelt famously sported a pinned slouch hat while leading the 1st United States Volunteer Cavalry—the so-called Rough Riders—in the Spanish-American War.

Colonel Theodore Roosevelt wearing a slouch hatWhy did the Australians pin the brim to the side? According to the Australian Army website, the Victorian Mounted Rifles invented the style by turning up the right-side brim on an ordinary bush felt hat. The turned-up right side ensured the brim would not be caught during the drill movement of “shoulder arms” from “order arms.”

That may be true. But, if so, why did all other Australian state units (except Tasmania) turn up the brim on the left side? Fashion has to be at least part of the motive for the new look.

And fashion is also the reason people stopped wearing them in the United States in the 20th century. That is, until women were authorized to serve as Army Drill Sergeants for the first time in 1972.

The first six women to graduate from Fort Jackson’s Drill Sergeant Program were assigned new pinned slouch hats designed by Brigadier General Mildred C. Bailey. These were in place of the traditional campaign hats worn by male drill sergeants. For the first few years, the female hat was beige until the Army started phasing in the today’s dark green.

Female drill sergeants wearing a slouch hatPerhaps to signal women’s equality, the Army proposed in the 1980s moving female drill instructors to the male campaign hats. Female drill instructors protested, and the slouch hat remained.

Today, about 30% of Army Drill Sergeants and 20% of Air Force Military Training Instructors are women. They can choose to wear either slouch or campaign hats.

To my eye, there’s no choice.