A bearskin is a tall fur cap, usually worn as part of a ceremonial military uniform. Traditionally, the bearskin was the headgear of grenadiers and remains in use by grenadier and guards regiments in various armies.
The cloth caps worn by the original grenadiers in European armies during the 17th century were frequently trimmed with fur. The practice fell into disuse until the second half of the eighteenth century when grenadiers in the British, Spanish and French armies began wearing high fur hats with cloth tops and, sometimes, ornamental front plates. Imitating their Prussian counterparts, French grenadiers are described as wearing bearskins as early as 1761. The purpose appears to have been to add to the apparent height and impressive appearance of these troops both on the parade ground and the battlefield.
During the nineteenth century, the expense of bearskin caps and difficulty of maintaining them in good condition on active service led to this form of headdress becoming generally limited to guardsmen, bands or other units having a ceremonial role. The British Foot Guards and Royal Scots Greys did however wear bearskins in battle during the Crimean War and on peacetime manoeuvres until the introduction of khaki service dress in 1902.
Immediately prior to the outbreak of World War I in 1914, bearskins were still worn by guard, ceremonial palace or other units in the British, Belgian, Danish, Dutch, Imperial German, Russian and Swedish armies. This did not include use of the busby and other types of smaller fur headdress sometimes confused with the high bearskin. The Italian Sardinian Grenadiers had discarded bearskins in the nineteenth century but were to readopt them for limited ceremonial wear in modern times.
Until 1914, bearskins were worn in parade uniform by the Régiment des Grenadiers ("Regiment of Grenadiers") of the Belgian Army.  While still seen on peacetime maneuvers until about 1900, the bearskins were left in barracks upon mobilization in August 1914 and German troops occupying Brussels reportedly took many as souvenirs.
Its modern successor unit, the Regiment Carabiniers Prins Boudewijn – Grenadiers has readopted this headdress for limited ceremonial purposes.
The bearskin is also worn by the mounted Royal Escort. While this ceremonial unit is now provided by the civilian police, it was formerly part of the now defunct Belgian Gendarmerie and wears the pre-1914 full dress uniform of what was then part of the army.
Following the Battle of Waterloo and the action in which they gained their name, the Grenadier Guards were permitted to wear the bearskin. In 1831, this practice was extended to the other two regiments of Foot Guards then in existence. The Royal Scots Dragoon Guards, Honourable Artillery Company and officers of Fusilier regiments also wear the bearskin as part of their ceremonial uniform. The bearskin should not be mistaken for the busby which is a much smaller fur cap worn by the Royal Horse Artillery and hussar regiments in full dress. Nor should it be confused with the similar but smaller 'sealskin' cap worn by other ranks of the Royal Fusiliers, actually made of raccoon skin.
The standard bearskin of the British Foot Guards is 18 inches tall, weighs 1.5 pounds and is made from the fur of the Canadian black bear. However, an officer's bearskin is made from the fur of the Canadian brown bear as the female brown bear has thicker, fuller fur and is dyed black. An entire skin is used for each hat. The British Army purchase the hats, which are known as caps, from a British hatmaker which sources its pelts from an international auction. The hatmakers purchase between 50 and 100 black bear skins each year at a cost of about £650 each. If properly maintained, the caps last for decades.
On 3 August 1888, The New York Times reported that bearskin caps might be phased out because of a shortage of bear skins. The article stated that, at that time, bearskin hats cost £7–5s each (about 35 contemporary US dollars; £600 in 2007 pounds) and noted “it can readily be seen what a price has to be paid for keeping up a custom which is rather old, it is true, but is practically a useless one save for the purpose of military display”.
In 2005, the Ministry of Defence began a two-year test of artificial fur for the hats. The army has already replaced beaver hats and leopard skins, worn by some of its soldiers, with artificial materials. In March 2005, Labour MP Chris Mullin called for an immediate ban on bearskin hats stating that they "have no military significance and involve unnecessary cruelty."
Animal rights group People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) has protested against the continued use of real fur for the guards’ hats, alleging that the animals are killed cruelly. For several years, PETA members have held demonstrations, including one at St Peter's Hill, near St Paul's Cathedral, in 2006. PETA wants the fur hats to be replaced with synthetic materials and claims that the Ministry of Defence has not done enough to find alternatives. In February 2011, Joss Stone appeared in a PETA advert targeting the Ministry of Defence, showing the 23-year-old soul singer holding a teddy bear that covers her naked body and features the slogan "Bear Hugs, Not Bear Caps".
Army officials say approximately 100 skins are taken every year from the annual cull of thousands of bears by native Inuit hunters in a Government of Canada programme to keep numbers under control.
Royal Guards (Thailand)
Most units of the Royal Guards of Thailand wear pith helmets with heavy plumes resembling bearskins with their ceremonial uniforms, especially during the Thai Royal Guards parade held every year in December. The colours of the plumes vary from black to pink and blue, depending on the units of the wearers.
The Papal Corpo della Gendarmeria wore bearskins as part of their ceremonial uniform until this force was disbanded in 1970.
Countries that currently use bearskins
- Australia: Australian army
- Belgium: Belgian Federal Police
- Canada: Canadian Forces
- Denmark: Royal Danish Army
- Royal Life Guards or Den Kongelige Livgarde (1658)
- Italy: Italian Army
- Netherlands: Royal Netherlands Army
- Sweden: Swedish Army
- Thailand: Royal Thai Armed Forces
- United Kingdom: British Armed Forces
- United States of America: United States Armed Forces
- First Company Governor's Footguard of Connecticut
- United States Marine Band
Modern use by military bands
In addition to the specific units named above, bearskins are worn by limited categories of other military personnel with ceremonial functions. These include the following musical units
- British Armed Forces
- Bands of the Guards Division
- The Band and Corps of Drums of Honourable Artillery Company
- Pipes and Drums of the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards
- Royal Highland Fusiliers (Drum major only)
- Canadian Forces
- Sri Lanka Armed Forces
- Band of the Sri Lanka Artillery
- United States Armed Forces
- First and Second Companies, Governor's Footguard of Connecticut (Drum major only)
- United States Marine Band (Drum major only)
- United States Army Band (Drum major only)
- United States Navy Band (Drum major only)
- United States Coast Guard Band (Drum major only)
- United States Air Force Band (Drum major only)
- United States Army Field Band (Drum major only)
- Drum majors of the various service academies, as well as unit, division and fleet bands across the U.S. and worldwide
- Australian Defence Force
In the United States, a small number of university bands founded through military means also adorn their drum majors with these headpieces as opposed to their synthetic counterparts. One example being the drum majors of the Purdue University "All-American" Marching Band.
|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Bearskin hats.|
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- Rachel Shields, "They're Changing Hats at Buckingham Palace To Save the Black Bear," The Independent 31 Aug. 2008.
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- Call to ban British royal guards from wearing bearskin hats gains support
- "BBC NEWS - UK - England - Naked demo against bearskin hats". bbc.co.uk. Retrieved 21 January 2015.
- Joss Stone goes nude for a PETA campaign against the use of bear fur for military hats
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