A French Symbol: Beret

Popular French legend has it that Noah discovered the beret. According to myth, he was cleaning the Ark and discovered a mesh of wool that had been trodden to felt by a hundred hooves. Et voilà: the beret, derived from the Latin birretum (meaning ‘a cap’), was born.

Historians would dispute this biblical fable, but they would not deny that the beret goes back a long way: the ancient Greeks wore round, flat hats that looked similar and even the Romans had a flat cap called a beretino.

The first berets in France were worn by Béarnais shepherds in the Middle Ages. These canny Pyrenean mountain dwellers discovered that wool becomes water-resistant when left out in all weathers. Soon, all over the Midi-Pyrénées, shepherds were knitting themselves hats during the long winter veillées when fire flickered in the chimney and the wolves howled outside.

The beret gained vital importance in rural Pyrénées society and took on a host of other functions: berets were used as a place to hide money or a bag for gathering fruit, and the ‘stem’ in the middle was even said to ward off the devil.

Even the way the headgear was worn became a language in itself. According to Jean Olibet, creator of the world’s first beret museum, a cap that is pushed back off the forehead “brands the wearer as a swaggerer”, while worn low over one eye it “reveals a devious character”.

Due to its rainproof qualities, the Pays Basque’s pelota players adopted the beret during the 19th century and it soon became a symbol of the game. They were spotted by tourists, who wanted to take them home as souvenirs. Canny shopkeepers bought the hats from over the border in Béarn, then switched labels with the name of their villages; which is how the beret, which originated in Béarn, became associated with Basque culture in the hearts and homes of a thousand sightseers.

It was then adopted as part of the official uniform of French tank regiments in August 1919 and appeared in classic French films including Quai des Brumesand La Grande Illusion. During World War II, members of the French Resistance wore the beret and it became a symbol of courage and patriotism.

Up to the 1970s, 30 factories in France were making berets, and a decade later production still stood at several million a year. Today, even though armies across the world kit out their elite commandos in different coloured berets, cheaper imitations from China, India and the Czech Republic have flooded the market and production is in decline. You are more likely to see the iconic headgear on the catwalk of a fashion show, than on the heads of French villagers.

Only three beret manufacturers remain in France, all in Béarn: Laulhère, which bought out the oldest producer, Blancq-Olibet, in 2014; and two artisan makers: Boneteria Auloronesa and Le Béret Français. The first two are based in the town of Oloron-Sainte-Marie and the third in the village of Laàs.

In an attempt to buck the trend and bring berets back into fashion, Laulhère has opened a boutique on the fashionable Rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré in Paris. Worn by tattooed soldiers and bohemian artists; donned by figures as diverse as Che Guevara, Madonna and Monica Lewinsky, France’s most famous couvre-chef never seems to go out of style. “The beret is part of our heritage,” says Jean Olibet. “Come what may, the history of the beret and that of the French nation will always be inextricably entwined.”

Your Must Know about French Beret

The French beret has become the famous symbol of all things French to some extent – at least among those outside of France. The traditional French beret is just a flat circular hat of felted wool with a little “tail” poking out the top. But stick one of these on anything and it automatically becomes French.

There is no doubt that it is a practical little hat. It’s warm, waterproof, and can be tucked in your pocket when it’s not needed. But it’s much more than just a simple head covering. It’s a statement and an attitude that adapts to anyone’s personal style. This might explain why it has been worn by such divers segments of society over the past decades years. From shepherd to artist, soldier to film star, the beret has identified and conveyed the mood of its wearer.

It cannot be denied that the beret has a strong association with France, beret has been worn in the rest world throughout history, and the French don’t claim to have invented it. In fact, they credit Noah with its invention. Supposedly, when he was floating around in his ark getting rained on, he noticed that the wool on the floor in the sheep pen had been trampled and turned into felt. He cut out a circle, put it on his head to keep his hair dry, and voila! The first beret.

In more modern times, it was the 17th century shepherds in the French regions of Béarn and Basque who are responsible for the beret’s popularization in France. They figured if the wool kept the sheep at a comfortable temperature in sun, wind, and rain, maybe it could do the same for them. It’s said, they stuffed wool in their shoes to keep their feet warm and dry. They discovered that the compression of walking on it and the humidity from the wet ground  caused the fibers to cling together and turned the wool into felt. These early shepherds made their berets from the wool of their own sheep. But they weren’t great hat makers and their head coverings were sometimes smelly and hairy.

Then in the early 1800s mass production of berets began and the flat caps became more standardized… and better smelling. The southwest of France already had a long history of textile production so it was only natural that they started to produce the cap that was so popular in the area.  The first beret factory started production in 1810 and others followed. In the early factories, the caps were still knitted by hand and the little “tail” on the top of the beret was the ends of the fibers. When they began to be machine knitted, there was no “tail” so, of course, it had to be added – because a “tail-less” beret just wouldn’t be a beret hat.

Beret, An Accessory of French Girls

A stereotypical, almost caricatural symbol of France – along with baguettes, a string of garlic cloves and Breton stripes – the beret has been dismissed by the fashion crowd in recent years.Beanies and floppy hats are fashion girl favorites in the cold weather, but no hat collection is complete without a beret. Berets are a classic. Plus, they make you feel like an insouciant French girl. Who doesn’t want that?

But fast forward to present day and it’s having a real style surge.

The fashion industry has always reflected the times we live in and it’s no coincidence that this chapeau has a history steeped in military influence and intellectual free-thought.

Long associated with artsy, creative types, the beret was worn by the likes of Pablo Picasso, Ernest Hemingway, Marlene Dietrich and John Lennon until it all got political in the 1960s.

Then, Che Guevara used it as a symbol of revolution as he rallied for supporters to rise against the Batista government in Cuba while some years later the black nationalist and socialist organisation Black Panther Party wore theirs atop their afros – a look which Beyoncé paid homage to during her 2016 Super Bowl half-time appearance.

Bringing the beret up to speed, it made a comeback on the runway this season too as Dior topped off all 68 of its looks with a £610 leather style. Resting them on soft waved tresses, creative director Maria Grazia Chiuri made a nod to the hat’s revolutionary roots in choosing it to represent a generation of women wanting to make a stand.

Cementing its sartorial comeback, France’s unofficial national accessory has also sat firmly on the heads of some of fashion’s biggest style influencers. While Rihanna wore hers on the front row of the Dior show paired with a dark navy overcoat and burgundy lip, the quirky headpiece has been also been spotted on everyone from Bella Hadid to Adwoa Aboah.

Whether fluffy, felt or leather, the beret hat is an accessory almost everyone will be wearing this winter. The best thing about it though, is that it suits literally every type of hairstyle and acts as the perfect cover-up for in-between salon visits.

Then there are all of the different outfits you can finish off with a beret. A beret may be a practical option for the cold weather, but you don’t need to limit wearing it to when you’re outside. A jaunty beret works with almost anything, from casual looks to coats to your fancy clothes. You can also take Gucci’s more-is-more approach any time of day and top your outfit with a beret and a handful of other statement accessories.