Here to Stay: The History of the Beret

Man wearing a beret lying on the hood of a car
Image credit: George Eastman Museum / No known copyright restrictions

You would be hard-pressed to think of an item of clothing with more bifurcated associations than the beret. On the one hand, it has long been the chosen headgear of just about the most ‘manly’ folks around in the form of soldiers and revolutionaries. And on the other, it’s overwhelmingly been the ambit of womenswear in recent decades, enough so for The Guardian to declare in 2012 that ‘A beret on a man is ridiculous’. Luckily, such stark divisions are being eroded as berets show up more and more on the heads of people of all stripes, and, indeed, looking at the garment’s long history reveals a colourful and ever-changing valency dating all the way back to the Bronze Age.

Given the simplicity of its design, it’s perhaps unsurprising that beret-like head covering can be traced as far back as the fifth century BC, worn by the ancient Romans and Minoans. In the modern era, its aesthetic has  — no surprises here — mostly been defined by the French. In the seventeenth century, berets became commonplace in the Basque region of Spain and France as locals knitted them from wool to offer warmth and protection from the elements in winter. It would go on to become the official French hat, with the first factory dedicated to beret production being set up in 1810. Within a hundred years around 20 such facilities were producing millions of berets for working men across France’s northern reaches. 

Vintage image of people wearing berets
Image credit: GipuzkoaKultura / CC BY-SA 2.0

Beginning with the French in 1889, the beret’s military associations coalesced in the twentieth century, and not uncontroversially so. Some find the beret to be ill-suited to combat conditions. It requires two hands to put on and can’t fold neatly into a pocket. It’s also too hot in the sun while offering scant protection from rain. Plus, there’s no consensus on how to wear it. Most seem to think it should be pulled to the right, but the French favour the left. On the positive side, it’s a hat ideally suited to crawling through small hatchways and being worn with headphones, which is why it found a natural home among tank crews.

Berets have been adopted by just about every national army at one point or another, and various colours have historically marked elite regiments. The best-known of these is perhaps the green berets (properly known as the United States Army Special Forces), thanks to the 1968 John Wayne film of the same name.

Members of the French Resistance
French Resistance fighters in berets
Image credit: Donald I. Grant / Public domain

The 1960s heralded the beret’s next chapter atop the heads of rebels and revolutionaries the world over. The influence of Che Guevara’s iconic aesthetic, especially as immortalized in Alberto Korda’s ‘Guerrillero Heroico’ photograph, perhaps can’t be overstated. In Che’s wake, the beret was adopted by student radicals, Irish republican fighters, the Basque nationalist group ETA, Chicano activists in the Southwest of America, and many more. 

lberto Korda Guerrillero Heroico Che Guevara photo
Image credit: Alberto Korda / Public domain

Perhaps most famously, it became synonymous with the Black Panthers during America’s Civil Rights movement. In the decades since, the beret remains embedded throughout African American culture, often bearing a political significance, as with the rap group Public Enemy or in the contemporary Black Lives Matter movement. Its also a signature look for the dapper likes of Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonius Monk, Spike Lee, LL Cool J, Beyoncé, and the gloriously Kangol-clad Samuel L. Jackson. 

Dizzy Gillespie wearing a suit and beret
Dizzy Gillespie
Image credit: The Library of Congress / No known copyright restrictions

Other well-known wearers include Rembrandt, Picasso, Groucho Marx, Ernest Hemingway, John Lennon, Ben Okri, assorted members of the Beat generation, and famed WWII commander Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery. In the realm of womenswear, it was first adopted in the 1920s by Coco Chanel and co., and would become signatures for women like Marlene Dietrich, Greta Garbo, Jean Harlow, and Lauren Bacall in the early twentieth century. It was similarly adopted by many ‘60s icons including Brigitte Bardot, Twiggy, and Faye Dunaway courtesy of her iconic performance in Bonnie and Clyde (1967).

With such a diverse assortment of wearers over the centuries, if you’ve ever baulked at the prospect of a beret for seeming too outré, know you’d be in good company should you try one today.

* In writing this article, I am particularly indebted to Josh Sims’ excellent entries on swimwear in The Details: Iconic Men’s Accessories and Icons of Women’s Style.

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