Šajkača (shaykacha) is a cap made of a woollen fabric, shayak. Shayak is woollen, homemade material, a type of coarse felt. The word comes from Turskih, şayak.
Šajkača cap is the Serbian national cap still worn today by the farmers of central Serbia. The material, shayak, is made of wool, so the cap is worn in summer as much as in winter, since it keeps the temperature of the head constant. In winter, its sides can be lowered over the ears. Usually it is olive green, resembling a military item, but it can be in other colours – blue or navy blue. The shape of the cap resembles a boat, a river boat, a šajka (shayka). Similar caps are thought to have been worn by the Serbian soldiers in the Austro-Hungarian military river frontier navy – the shaykash.
The history of šajkača dates back to the mid 19th century. At first, before šajkača and hats were introduced (in towns and cities), Serbs used to wear fezzes, Turkish red caps. There is even an old town song about a fez – A Red Small Fez. In the mid 19th century, the Austro-Hungarian army, as did the other European armies, realised that colourful, decorated uniforms worn by that time were not practical for conditions in the field, could not be blended into the environment and mud made them soon worn out. In addition, an enemy could spot them easily from afar. So the Austro-Hungarian army decided to make a new type of uniform, and the cap was a šajkača. The new uniform was much disliked by Archduke Franz Ferdinand and he ordered a new one to be made. Then Serbia bought the whole stock of the already made uniforms for a quarter of the original price. At that time, Serbia was often engaged in some or the other war and was a small and not well off country. Inexpensive uniforms were a godsend. The ragged and in tatters soldiers finally started to look like a regular army. Some decades later, this same imperial Austro-Hungarian army lived to see the day when they were defeated by the Serbian army wearing that one and the same uniform. In the battles of the First World War, Serbian soldiers charged at the enemy, wearing šajkača caps. There is a soldier’s šajkača and officer’s one. The officer’s one, has a small rim above the eyes.
In 1870 the Serbian army got its uniform, but the first war fought under the šajkača was the one against the Turks in 1876-78. In order to be more efficient in mobilising the troops, the people under a military obligation were given their uniforms to keep them at home. So, they started to wear parts of the uniform in their everyday lives. Parts of the uniform were worn with pride, because owning a uniform meant one was ready for war and bravery. As part of the male national costume, Serbs then started to wear breeches, trousers that had a pronounced flare through the thighs, but were quite tight down the calf, and a šajkača cap. Volunteers of the Balkan wars and the First World War brought the cap to other Serbian regions, mostly to Herzegovina and Lika where they were worn during the Second World War, as well.
The šajkača cap was not taken off before anyone – not even before a king. The only occasion when it was taken off was before God, at church. Anyhow, it was a cap for every occasion. Men wear it as they like it – put forward on the forehead, or put back, askew, above the ears or in winter with sides put over the ears. Money can be kept in it, or a letter received from afar may be tucked in on the outside, or sweat can be wiped with it off the face while working in the field. It is easily folded and can be tucked in the belt, or unfolded and placed over the face when having a nap in a shade of a tree.
Although it is now worn much less than it once used to be, šajkača is still one of the symbols of Serbia and the Serbs.