Guardsman Picture: BFBS
Uniform

The Bearskin: Everything You Need To Know

Where they originate, who else wears them and are they made of real fur?

Guardsman Picture: BFBS

The unmistakable site of a Guardsman standing smartly to attention on the forecourt of Buckingham Palace is as much an icon to British culture as the red telephone box or a cup of English tea.  

Magnanimous to Guardsmen are the striking black headdresses worn by them, a piece of uniform called the Bearskin.

But what is it all about?

Here, as we examine the history behind the frequently controversial Bearskin, exploring which other armies around the world wears them and the process behind their manufacture. Are they really made of bear fur and just how tall are the men and women underneath them? 

This is all the gen on the Bearskin ...

The Irish Guards on parade at Horse Guards in 2017. Credit: MOD

Origins Of Bearskins

Although the Bearskin cap is synonymous with British foot guard regiments, they are in fact worn by several armies around the world, exclusively for ceremonial purposes.

The list of Bearskin-wearing armed forces includes the Belgian Royal Escort, the military bands of the Kenyan Defence Force and even the Governor’s Foot Guard of the Connecticut State Guard in the USA.

All in all, no fewer than 14 nations permit members of their military to wear the Bearskin as part of ceremonial uniform, but it has not always been a ceremonial matter.

The earliest record of a Bearskin cap being worn by soldiers was in Europe at about the midpoint of the 17th century.

However, the style seemingly did not catch on until about a hundred years later when in 1761, French grenadiers wore them in imitation of their Prussian counterparts.

The first adopters of the Bearskin as it is recognised today were the French Imperial Guard who wore the item in imitation of their Prussian counterparts in Europe. 

For the early adopters of the Bearskin within British military units, the headdress was worn in battle during the Crimean War, but with the introduction of the khaki uniform at the start of the 20th century, the Bearskin became a purely ceremonial item of clothing.

Britain had first authorised the wearing of Bearskins following the Battle of Waterloo, singling out the Grenadier Guards as its sole proprietors, but within twenty years this was extended to include the other foot guard regiments and latterly the Royal Scots Greys.

Today, the headdress is worn by the five foot guard regiments of the British Army (Grenadier, Scots, Welsh, Irish, Coldstream), officers of fusilier regiments, the Scots Dragoon Guards and members of the Honourable Artillery Company. In addition, the Drum Major of the Band of the Royal Highland Fusiliers wears one on parade.

The Bearskin is only worn as part of Full Dress.

It's business as usual for the Household Guard.
Irish Guards at Buckingham Palace

Controversy Over Bearskins

The use of the Bearskin cap has been a controversial matter for the Ministry of Defence for decades.

The continued production of the item for use by foot guard regiments, and by association the Royal Family, has attracted criticism due to the fact that the Bearskins used on parade by the likes of the Welsh Guards are authentic … they really are made from the left-over skins of culled Black Bears.

The most prominent opponent to the use of the Bearskin is animal rights charity PETA who have campaigned relentlessly for the ceasation of the wearing of authentic Bearskin caps by British Army regiments. 

Price Of Bearskin Hats Soars Five-Fold In Seven Years

The standard Bearskin worn on parade by a guardsman is 18 inches tall and weighs one and a half pounds.

The addition of the item on top of a soldier’s head makes the person under it look a lot bigger and indeed, this was precisely what early Bearskin hats were designed to achieve.

The wearing of Bearskins added to the height and impressiveness of soldiers on the battlefield.

Guardsmen have historically been tall men any way. Prior to the Second World War, to be a Grenadier Guard in Queen's Company, a recruit had to be at least six foot and two inches in height. But that's not the case any more. 

Where Does Britain Source Its Bearskin Caps From?

The Bearskins used by the Danish Royal Life Guards features a bronze cap badge and their use predates Britain's adopting of the headdress. Credit: Creative Commons. 

The answer lies in Canada where, due to bear population control measures, annually thousands of wild Black Bears are culled.

Under Canadian law, no more than 5% of the wild bear population can be culled annually.

Of the approximately 20,000 that are ‘legally harvested’, the supplier of the ceremonial Bearskin cap to the Ministry of Defence takes about 100 skins to be used for new uniforms.

Each newly produced Bearskin uses one whole skin from a culled Black Bear, at a cost to the supplier of about £650.

In 1997, then minister for procurement at the Ministry of Defence, Lord Gilbert, said that he wanted Bearskins phased out as soon as possible, and in 2005 Labour MP, Chris Mullin, called for a ban stating that they had, “No military significance and involved unnecessary cruelty.”

In the same year, the MOD began a two year trial of other materials. However, today the Bearskin remains to be made of the natural fur of the American Black Bear.

Could There Be A Change In Policy On Bearskins?

Earlier this year, the MOD said that they had, "examined various alternative materials in the past" but none had "come remotely close"  to matching the natural properties of bear fur. 

But in response to fresh calls to end the tradition of using the skins of culled bears, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs have hinted that change could be coming at the end of the UK's transition period of leaving the European Union.

In a statement, the department said:

"We have some of the highest welfare standards in the world and that is both a source of pride and a clear reflection of British attitudes towards animals. 

"Fur farming has rightly been banned in this country for nearly 20 years and at the end of the transition period we will be able to properly consider steps to raise our standards still further."

Of the 14 nations around the world using Bearskins as part of ceremonial uniform, few have made the leap to using synthetic materials instead of real fur.

Two European nations have, Italy and Sweden, and with renewed pressure directed at Whitehall officials from campaigning groups, perhaps the days of the traditional Bearskin on military parades in the UK are numbered.