The stylish and iconic French “Beret”. A soft, round cap that is flat at the crown and typically made of hand woven knitted wool or wool felt. Classic and versatile. Alas, the wool cap in ebony black, the iconic “French Beret”, finds my appreciation with its enduring appearance and adoration in fashion. The beret has been a timeless fashion statement that the French adapted to iconic heights.
The French word “Beret”, first mentioned in 1835, originates from the Latin word “Birretum”. The term “Bearnais Berret” refers to a “Sort of flat woollen cap, worn by the local peasants”. In 19th century English the beret was referred to as the “Biretta” or “clerical square cap”. The Spanish and the Basque termed this cap the “Beret Basque”, “Birette” or “Boina”, the Germans “Baskenmutze”, the Italians “Basco” and the Finnish “Baskeri”. A cap of impact, for certain! What was once the national hat of France has a history that is said to date as far as 5th century BC. Who knew? Alas, the cap of French fashion is an ancient style, indeed! Head adornment similar to the modern beret is said to have been worn since the Bronze Age across Northern Eurpoe, including ancient Crete and Italy. The Greeks are said to have first worn the assemblage of the beret. The Romans borrowed the adornment of this cap, calling it the “Beretino”. Interestingly, it was the Romans who are said to have classified the berets by color, creating a distinction between aristocrats and commoners. Again, who knew? It was the French who chose the color black for the beret of French statement. How the beret officially came to France is unknown. However, the Basque style beret was the traditional headgear of Basque shepherds in the Pyrenees (the mountain range that divides Southern France from Northern Spain). In addition, the cap was highly fashionable in Italy during the 17th century. Its popularity with nobility as well as artists can certainly be found throughout its history.
The worldwide appeal of the beret was inevitable. Of interest, by the early 20th century Americans were wearing this “French Beret” as a sportswear and fashion statement. In fact, even the British Military tank force adopted the beret as part of its uniform. The Beret would soon become a integral part of military uniforms across the globe. The traditional beret (as we know it today) was worn by select military units, such as the Belgian Chasseurs Ardennais and the French Chasseurs Alpins. These berets, however, had an additional inch or more of the woolen material to allow an inward fold and often provided an external “sweat band” of leather or ribbon. Additionally, after World War I, British General Hugh Elles, proposed the beret for use for the Royal Tank Regiment as headgear that would stay on while climbing in and out of small hatches of the tanks. King George V would approve these berets for use in 1924. Quite a history with these flat caps of style!
Regarding the classic “French” Beret, originally a local craft, commercial production of the “Basque Style Beret” began in the 17th century in the Oloron-Sainte-Marie region of Southern France. The industrialization of the 19th century saw the first factory, Beatex-Laulhere, which documents initial production of the beret beginning in 1810. Quite a history of black wool. It was during the 1920’s that berets became associated with the working class in areas of France and Spain. By 1928, it is said that more than 20 French factories in addition to Spanish and Italian factories produced millions of these caps of wool. Imagine! High demand, indeed, for these flat caps of style! Although a stereotypical emblem of the French, the beret is said to still remain a strong sign of local identity in South Western France. Alas, it is said that there are only two manufacturers that remain in France. Regardless, the symbolism of this iconic cap will continue in celebrations of traditional French events. Long associated with artists, film directors, poets and bohemians, its fashion statement goes beyond its social and military links. Beyond a revolutionary symbol, it is an iconic emblem of a fashion that is seemingly eternally linked to the French. Regardless, the appeal of the beret has certainly yet to diminish…
The beret, with its snug fit around the head, can be “shaped” in a variety of stylish angles. Whether pushed to one side, jutting forward or sitting atop one’s head, or pulled down to cover the forehead, the manner of wearing the beret has no universal rule. It’s attitude, I believe. A fashion statement of its own. Indeed, the “French Beret” is the beret of dramatic yet simplistic style. Durable and versatile style in black wool. The stylish black woolen “French Beret”…a fashion statement, indeed.