When you say France, chances are that one of your first associations would be a beret, that soft, round, flat-crowned Basque hat usually made from sturdy wool felt that prevents the passage of wind and water and is designed with a tight-fitting crown that helps hold the hat on the head without the use of elastic.
In the West, particularly in Anglo-Saxon countries, beret is part of the stereotypical image of Onion Johnny – Breton farmers who travel on bicycles and sell their onions door to door in Great Britain, although the cap is not so widely worn today.
The French, when they want to portray themselves as the typical average Frenchman, often use this Onion Johnny stereotype. Despite being one of the most popular French products, today only three beret manufacturers remain in France, all based in Bearn in southern France: Laulhere, which bought out the oldest producer, Blancq-Olibet, in 2014 and two artisan makers: Boneteria Auloronesa and Le Beret Francais.
So how was the typical headgear worn by shepherds from the Pyrenees transformed from farmer’s cap and the common hat of the French and Spanish workers to a revolutionary and fashion statement, a stereotype of artists, film directors and revolutionaries?
Images taken from Wikimedia Commons and Pixabay
Legend has it that it was Noah floating around in his ark who invented the beret. According to the story, he noticed that the wool on the floor in the sheep pen had been trampled and turned into felt. He cut out a piece, put it on his head to keep his hair dry and voila, the rest is history.
History tells us that caps similar to the beret have been worn since the Bronze Age. Headgear similar to today’s beret was worn by the Minoans, Etruscans and Romans.
By the 14th and 15th century the beret style cap that was cheap and easy to make and provided good protection against the elements was worn by the poorest classes in Europe – farmers and artists, as seen in Rembrandt and Johannes Vermeer’s paintings.
The Basque style beret was the traditional headgear of shepherds from the Pyrenees that divide Southern France from northern Spain since the Middle Ages. The shepherds realized that they can use the same wool that kept the sheep at a comfortable temperature in sun, wind and rain for themselves as well and began making crude berets from the wool of their own sheep. These berets were usually black and blue, while white and read were worn on special occasions.
The commercial production of the berets began in the 17th century in the Oloron-Sainte-Marie area of southern France where the three remaining manufacturers remain today. The caps became more standardized. They were all hand knitted and the “tail” on the top was actually the ends of the fibers.
The mass production began in the 19th century. By now machines were used to knit the berets and the “tail” on the top was needless, but since it would not have been a beret without it, it had to be added.
In the early 20th century, berets were associated with the working classes in both France and Spain, but also with the Parisian artists such as Monet, Cezanne, Picasso who wore it and painted it. Cynics would say they wore them day and night to keep warm when they couldn’t pay the rent.
Throughout the 1920s artists and poets and writers and singers in Paris, from Ernest Hemingway to Edith Piaf, jazz musicians and Picasso wore the beret to add a touch of bohemian chic to their outfits.
French designer Coco Chanel made it into a fashion statement for the ladies in 1920s and 1930s when she introduced her collection inspired by menswear. Movie stars such as Greta Garbo or Michele Morgan popularized them even further, turning the beret into a classic fashion accessory.
The new wave French film of the 1960s renewed the beret as a fashion item. Stars such as Brigitte Bardot, Faye Dunaway and Catherine Deneuve were seen wearing berets on red carpets.
French army’s mountain infantry, the Chasseurs Alpins were the first to wear berets as a part of the uniform in 1889. After World War I, British Royal Tank Regiment (RTB) began wearing them as they were practical – they protected the men’s hair from the oil in a tank but did not take up space in the cramped interior of small hatches of tanks.
The black RTB beret was made famous by British Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery in the Second World War and it was also a symbol of the French resistance.
In the 1960s and 1970s, it became a revolutionary statement after figures such as Fidel Castro and Che Guevara wore them – one of the most famous photographs of Che Guevara shows him wearing a black beret with a brass star.
Several activist groups including the ETA and the Black Panthers adopted the black beret as their uniform. The knitted black beret with red, gold and green circles were worn by the Rastafarians atop their dreadlocks.
So whether you wear it to add a touch of French chic to your outfit or as a fashion or political statement, you will be noticed. Fashionable. And well protected against the weather.