More or less since the franchise’s beginnings, hats have been an absolute mainstay in the aesthetics of Pokémon. Every main series game’s protagonist has worn a distinctive hat, as has the protagonist of the long-running anime series. At time of writing, the most iconic of these hats is quite possibly this design: a red baseball cap with a white arch on its front.
Now, as someone who’s paid some attention to the Pokémon fandom for years, the rise in popularity of this hat design has been somewhat sudden – while the hat has been around for nearly 15 years at this point, it only really became such an icon of the franchise around 5 years ago. Why is this? I thought I’d track the history of this hat through the years to figure it out.
This hat was first introduced in Pokémon’s third generation games, FireRed and LeafGreen. Being modernized remakes of the original Red and Green, the new games featured the hat as part of a redesign of original protagonist Red. This design remained consistent in Red’s appearances in HeartGold and SoulSilver, Black 2 and White 2 and the Super Smash Bros. franchise, as well as in future adaptations of the character including Pokémon Origins and Pokémon Generations.
The redesigned headgear was meant to bring Red into line with his successors, Ethan and Brendan – both of their hats somehow evoked a Poké Ball, as did the white arch of Red’s new cap. Prior to this redesign, Red’s signature headwear was simply a red baseball cap with a white segment on the front and a patch sewed on to one side. While this hat hardly became iconic, it was the design that most fanart of Red portrayed him in for years after his redesign was introduced.
Red’s initial hat would also influence the original series design of the Pokémon anime’s protagonist, Ash; As the anime was what popularized Pokémon in the west, Ash’s original hat became emblematic of the Pokémon franchise for years to come (full disclosure – I don’t really like that design that much)
So, what would turn the fortune of Red’s redesigned hat around? As luck would have it, it would be the Pokémon anime once again. In 2013, the anime’s XY series began, introducing along with it a new design for Ash. While his new appearance (including the cadet cap style of the hat) was mostly based on the X and Y video game protagonist, Calem, his hat incorporated the white brim and Poké Ball arch first featured in Red’s Generation III redesign. Its appearance on the show didn’t single-handedly popularize the design, although it was the direct cause of what did.
Shortly after the new series began, The Pokémon Company released a baseball cap based on Ash’s XY series hat (note that the in-show version was a cadet cap, not a baseball cap). The hat was sold all over the place – Nintendo New York, Pokémon Centers and Hot Topics; A variation even made its way to Lids. It quickly became the most widely-accessible – and, therefore, the most widely-recognized – of all of Ash’s post-original series caps.
While it was clearly based on Ash’s design – unlike Red’s, the white arch doesn’t touch the brim, thanks to a raised stripe characteristic of a cadet cap – the design surpassed the anime and became emblematic of the franchise as a whole.
Thanks to its increased merchandising, the red hat became one of the iconic symbols of the Pokémon franchise. The games have called back to it more and more as of their seventh generation – the 21-year old Red in Pokémon Sun and Moon wears a variation which features the Poké Ball’s divider stripe (I saw many a cosplayer wearing a modified XY Ash hat for this purpose), and Pokémon Let’s Go protagonists Chase and Elaine both wear a repetition of this design on a more elaborate cap – which, it should be noted, is also being merchandised by the Pokémon Company through New Era.
And that’s the story of how one character’s hat went from a barely-acknowledged redesign to one of the recognizable icons of a massive franchise thanks to a simple merchandising push. Only time will tell how long this design will endure.