Ever wondered how the Navy white hat, also known as a dixie cup, came to be? Author Marke Hensgen told all in the November 1988 edition of All Hands magazine. The title of the article: “To Cap It All Off… A Fond Look at a Navy Trademark: Uses (and Abuses) of the ‘Dixie Cup.’ ” Today and Friday in “Tidbits” we’ll learn all about white hats, including how you can give them a distinctive style all your own, and what role a toilet can play in keeping them clean.

“It can be squared, rolled, crushed, fitted with ‘gull wings’ or simply worn as it comes from small stores. It can be used as a flotation device or a sun shield or even, some claim, as a dog food dish. With its many shapes and uses, it may be the most versatile article of clothing a Navy enlisted man wears.

“According to Naval Historian John Reilly, ‘The “dixie cup”-style hat has appeared and reappeared in the Navy as part of the uniform since it was first written into the uniform regulations of 1886.’

“That year, the white canvas hat became the replacement for the straw hat previously worn during the warm weather months. The Navy needed a practical summer hat that was easy to clean and stow, cheap to manufacture and comfortable to wear. During the winter, sailors continued to wear a flat, black hat.

“Current Navy uniform regulations say the hat must be worn ‘with the lower front edge approximately one-half inch above the eyebrows and not crushed or bent in the middle.’ That leaves a lot of possibilities.

“By reshaping the white hat or ‘dixie cup’ to suit their personal style, enlisted sailors have been able, for more than 100 years, to express some measure of individuality in a uniform world.

“Uniform regulations may technically forbid such stylistic reshaping, but few sailors can resist.

“ ‘When I first put the white hat on, it felt like a bowl sitting on top of my head,’ said Data Processor 1st Class Eddie Hawes of Navy Headquarters Information Center, Washington, D.C. ‘I thought, “There must be something I could do to change it.” The way I put crimps in it made it different from anyone else’s.’

“The tradition of personalizing the white hat hasn’t changed much in more than 25 years, according to Master Chief Petty Officer of the Navy, Avionics Technician Master Chief (AW) Duane R. Bushey. ‘The white hat is like putty—you can mold different characters out of it,’ he said. ‘I wanted my hat to be completely round. I wanted it to droop a bit, so I’d roll it down halfway to loosen it up.’

“Master Chief Hospital Corpsman Jerry Robinson, Command Master Chief at Bethesda Naval Medical Center, recalled how he wore his white hat. ‘I rolled the top quarter edge. It would flare out and have a flat edge to it. It took a lot of time and care to keep it that way.’

“Most sailors usually find it hard work to get their white hats just exactly the way they like them.

“ ‘Although I have six hats, I only wear the one I’ve been working on,’ said Yeoman 2nd Class Jerry Bradley, a Vice Chief of Naval Operations staff yeoman in Washington, D.C. ‘It’s softened up and fits better,’ he said. ‘I get attached to one hat at a time.’

“There may be many different ways to wear a white hat, but there are just as many different nicknames—‘squid lid,’ ‘dog dish’ and ‘Mason jar top’—these and many other terms have been handed down over the decades. Aviation Electronics Technician Airman Apprentice Doug Paige of Naval Air Station Oceana, Va., remembers why his white hat was called a ‘dog dish.’

 “ ‘When I was in “A” school, every time I went to the EM [Enlisted Men’s] club I had to watch out for Marines. They would steal any sailor’s hat—said they used it as a dish to feed their mascot,’ said Paige. ‘I had to buy nine hats while I was there!’

“But despite the unflattering nicknames and occasional abuse, the white hat has gained high status over the generations—it has become a symbol of the Navy. The dixie cup is so recognizable that Hollywood uses it as a prop in movie scenes shot in train stations, bus stations and airports.

“ ‘The Navy’s white hat is much more easily identified than other military uniforms,’ said CAPT Michael Sherman, Director of Navy Office of Information, Los Angeles, noting that sailors are synonymous with travel and white hats are synonymous with sailors. ‘People expect to see them in areas of transit,’ he said.”