“I want to tell you something,” says a bucket hat–wearing youth in The African Cypher, director Bryan Little’s documentary about street dance culture in South Africa. “When my hat is like this, it means no problem at all.” Then, his intense gaze practically burning holes in the camera lens, he rotates his bucket: “I just put a little bit of trouble in my hat... And when I turn it again”—now he flips up the front of the brim—“it means double trouble." Finally he slides the bucket all the way back on his head. "And you know when I put it a little up like this,” he adds, “that’s called disaster.”

This street-level lesson in bucket-hat semiotics demonstrates just how far this particular chapeau has come from its beginnings as standard issue to protect the necks of Israeli Defense Force troops battling in the desert sun back in the 1940s. Since that time it has become the most versatile lid ever devised. Depending how you rock your bucket, it can communicate casual cool (fishing-lure floppy) or untouchable excess (Gucci bucket glam). But whatever your bucket hat says, it does so loudly.

Place the blame on the head of Gilligan—or the credit, if that’s what should be given to the fumbling first mate who brought the bucket into the TV headwear hall of fame. But he didn't tell Big Bank Hank to kick the bucket in the world's first rap video. Whoever is responsible, the truth is inescapable: the bucket hat has evolved from quirky outlier to style staple. For irrepressible characters ranging from renegade scribe Hunter S. Thompson to hip-hop hooligans Earl Sweatshirt and Schoolboy Q, the bucket hat is an essential part of their character. And now everybody seems to be jumping on the bucket bandwagon. Not since its late '80s heyday has the bucket hat been more au courant. So how did this flippable lid end up on the whole world's bucket list? Let's take a moment to look back.

Written by Peter Relic

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