Perhaps the most visually iconic thing about Link is his green cap. Although it was eschewed for blonde bangs in Breath of the Wild, it’s always been one of those genius design touches: we spend almost all of these games watching Link from the back or above, and his hat bobs up and down as he moves, literally topping off the aesthetic and exertions of the series’ mute hero. There’s a lot more to this distinct headgear, however, than meets the eye.
Link's hat is what historians would call a Phrygian cap, and it's also known as a liberty cap. This design of hat was associated with liberty and the pursuit of freedom in ancient European civilisations from the Roman Empire to Ancient Greece, and is generally emblematic of libertarian movements throughout global history. Although the Hero of Hyrule is a champion of liberty and a worthy wearer of the cap in just about any Zelda title, the game in which the symbolism of Link’s Phrygian cap is most deeply explored is Minish Cap, which launched for GBA back in 2004.
Minish Cap is one of only three Zelda games that features Vaati as the main antagonist instead of Ganondorf. I'm going to summarise a bit of the game's plot, so if spoilers for a decades-old GBA game bother you, look away now. Vaati was formerly apprentice to a brilliant craftsman Ezlo, but was always fascinated with humanity’s hunger for power. After Ezlo created a magical cap that would grant the wishes of its wearer — shaped remarkably like Link’s Phrygian cap — to give as a gift to Hyrule, Vaati turned on Ezlo, stealing the sacrosanct cap for his own benefit. He then proceeded to transform Ezlo into a similar cap, although Ezlo didn’t have the same magical power.
So: Ezlo’s good intentions are hijacked by the sycophantic Vaati, who warps the cap of liberty into a crown of oppression.
What's fascinating about this is the symbolism that Capcom's designers were consciously echoing. Vaati’s cap is literally transformed into a crown when he takes on the form of King Daltus in Minish Cap, and this change symbolises his misuse of liberty in the pursuit of a monarchic dictatorship. You don't have to look too far back to find real-world examples of revolutions betrayed, and revolutionaries abandoned.
Vaati's obsessed with finding the Light Force, a macguffin representing absolute power. He imprisons and threatens those brave enough to oppose him: "Fling anyone who refuses into the dungeon! Him and his family, too! I will tolerate no disobedience!" The cap associated with freedom is now nothing more than a malformed, crown-shaped signifier of coercion worn by the oppressor.
The link with Phrygian caps in real life is a political one. The Phrygian cap was first recognised as a symbol of liberty in early modern Europe: this was because the conical cap resembled and/or was confused with the pileus, which was worn by Roman slaves who had been granted manumission. After gaining their freedom, the pileus marked their status as a free man; a person with libertas, freedom as a citizen.
Eventually, countries that were reformed as a result of revolution eschewed their former coats of arms, which often included depictions of crowns, for new ones that featured a Phrygian cap. The replacement of the crown with the cap symbolised that country’s attainment of liberty. Even in modern France, the national symbol Marianne is often depicted wearing a Phrygian cap, representing a firm opposition to monarchic structures in favour of a democracy founded on liberty, equality, and fraternity. This is derived from the bonnet rouge, a kind of Phrygian cap that was donned by revolutionary France’s rebellious sans-culottes. Marquis de Villette, renowned as French philosopher Voltaire’s protege, once described the bonnet rouge as "the civic crown of the free man and French regeneration."
French revolutionaries wearing the bonnet rouge
The power of the Phrygian cap eventually spread outside of Europe, with many Latin American countries adopting the symbol after drawing inspiration from the French Revolution. These countries — notably Argentina, Bolivia, Colombia, Cuba, El Salvador, Haiti, Nicaragua, and Paraguay — changed their national coats of arms, which now include the red Phrygian cap based on the bonnet rouge. The replacement of the crown with the cap symbolises that liberty has prevailed over monarchy and oppressive systems of dictatorship. One even sits atop the seal of the United States Senate.
The seal of the United States senate, incorporating a Phyrgian cap (Image credit: creative commons)
So, when Link eventually defeats Vaati at the end of the game, there’s something poetic in the destruction of Vaati’s cap/crown. Vaati’s misuse of the cap almost brought Hyrule to its knees, but the crown is destroyed and Link is gifted a new Phrygian cap by Ezlo, transforming the corrupted symbol back into its original and pure form.
The cap and the crown dichotomy is a poignant thought in the modern world. It is now a symbol of office and power, and in that exposes how symbols can change, or be deceptive, or be misused. A crown, or a cap, or a toupee, can fool nations.
The interplay between the cap and the crown in Minish Cap is some small echo of the tension between liberty and monarchy that runs through history, a thread that not only underlies Link's attire and attitude, but also gives this seemingly apolitical series a revolutionary undercurrent. Link exists across timelines, in different lands, but in every one embodies courage and symbolises liberty, an undying revolutionary spirit that will, eventually, change these places for the better.