The kepi is a cap with a flat circular top and a visor or peak. The kepi was formerly the most common headgear in the French Army and has a unique image in the world of armies and policing.
Etymologically, the word is a borrowing of the French képi, itself a respelling of the Alemannic Käppi: a diminutive form of Kappe, meaning cap.
By 1900 the kepi had become the standard headdress of most French army units and a symbol of the French soldier. It appeared in full dress – with inner stiffening and ornamental plume or ball ornament – and service versions.
Officers’ ranks were shown by gold or silver braiding on the kepi. The different branches were distinguished by the colours of the cap. General officers wore, and continue to wear, kepis with gold oak leaves embroidered around the band.
In 1914 most French soldiers wore their kepis to war. The highly visible colours were hidden by a blue grey cover, following the example of the Foreign Legion and other North African units who had long worn their kepis with white or khaki covers in the field. With the adoption of sky-blue uniforms and steel Adrian helmets in 1915 to replace the conspicuous peace time uniforms worn during the early months of the First World War, the kepi was generally replaced by folding forage caps. Officers, however, still wore kepis behind the lines.
Following the war the kepi was gradually reintroduced in the peacetime French army. The Foreign Legion resumed wearing it during the 1920s; initially in red and blue and then in 1939 with white covers on all occasions. The bulk of the French army readopted the kepi in the various traditional branch colours for off-duty wear during the 1930s. It had now become a straight sided and higher headdress than the traditional soft cap. This made it unsuitable for war time wear, and after 1940 it was seldom worn except by officers. An exception to this was the Foreign Legion who were previously just one of many units that wore the kepi, now adopted it as a symbol.