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.”