The beret is most famously associated with the French. When one thinks of this hat, it is normal to imagine it on a sophisticated woman, carrying shopping bags, strolling down a quaint street in Paris. However, berets were first worn by peasants and soldiers long before it adorned the heads of runway models and streetwear moguls. This small headpiece has a deep French history relating to social class, politics, and of course, fashion.
THE HISTORY of the BERET
During the Bronze Age (3200-600 B.C.), long before the beret was worn by the French, archeologists have found sculptures and paintings that proved Western Europeans had worn hats of a similar style. At this time, the beret had yet to be named and was typically referred to as a petasos or pileos. Although there have been many variations in the style across time, the one thing that has remained consistent is the hat’s material: felt. Felt is a cheap and weather-proof material, making the beret a perfect hat for the lower class as it lasted a lifetime and was perfect for those who worked outdoors.
THE BERET and POLITICS
Moving forward to the 1800s, the beret became a political statement when Thomas Zumalacarregui and his military wore red berets during the First Carlist War, a Spanish conflict dating from 1833 – 1839. In the same era, the French began to wear a light blue version as a symbol of its army. Although the beret became a part of the traditional military uniform in Europe, the black beret was still worn exclusively by the lower class and peasants until the 1900s.
THE BERET BECOMES a FASHION STATEMENT
Eventually, the beret received its big break in the world of fashion in the early 1900s. Suddenly the beret was seen on the heads of sophisticated women as a chic accessory. There were over 20 factories across France and Spain making millions of berets by 1928. Many celebrities, artists, and poets could be seen wearing the hat, making it a symbol of style in France. In 1930, Coco Chanel helped along the popularity of the beret by including them in her line of women’s fashion, as she was known for transforming men’s styles into something a woman could wear. Thus, the beret had quickly become the most practical and iconic hat of that time.
WORLD WAR II
During World War II, the beret had become so symbolic of the French that the country’s soldiers could be identified on the battlefield by only their red hats. Following the conflict, the trend of wearing a beret as part of a military uniform had reached the United States, prompting its soldiers to adopt a dark green beret as part of their uniform. This is likely due to how quickly and cheaply the beret was made, and soon China, Ukraine, and Canada all included the hat in their military’s uniform.
THE BERET TODAY
Unlike bags and dresses, the beret has become a timeless fashion statement that has gone through very little transformation in terms of its appearance and yet remains a stylish piece. Throughout the 80s and 90s, the hat became popular amongst the risk takers in fashion, carrying with it a persona of rebellion and edginess. This attitude has continued into the 21st century since most people associate the beret with a fashion-forward French woman who doesn’t shy from making fashion statements that make her stand out in a crowd.
Claiming its place on the runway, the beret is often seen in shows today, making an iconic appearance in both the Chanel Resort runway show in 2017 as well as Dior’s runway show in the same year. For now, it appears that the beret will remain in style for some time, representing practicality, politics, or maybe even rebellion, but it seems that the symbolism is up to the wearer.