The beret may have a reputation for being the favorite headgear of French mimes and Cuban revolutionaries. However, this versatile hat has a more colorful history than you may realize. Made of felt fabric produced from shrinking wool fibers, the beret has been the common hat of choice for social revolutionaries for thousands of years.
The Humble Origins of the Beret
The oldest predecessors of today’s beret were discovered in Bronze Age tombs in Denmark and Italy. Archaeological records, sculptures, and paintings show that variations of the floppy wool hat were commonly worn across Western Europe through the Middle Ages. Because wool was in steady supply and felt was easy to produce, the beret was a wardrobe staple among the common populace.
Artists like Johannes Vermeer depicted peasant life on canvas during the Renaissance. Unsurprisingly, the beret figured largely in many of his works. The beret’s disc shape and waterproof nature made it attractive as both warm and cool weather headgear. In fact, the hat was favored among the peasantry for working outside in all weather conditions.
Wartime Gear and French Fashion
Berets of particular colors began to carry political and militaristic significance during the 1880s, with red berets appearing in Spain and blue berets sported by France’s elite Chasseurs Alpins. During WWI, British forces donned black berets, and in the 1950s, the famous Green Berets emerged as part of the American Special Forces.
While the beret became part of the uniform for militaries across the globe, others viewed the hat as a highly fashionable accessory. The chic French beret was adopted by men and women alike in North America and Europe beginning in the 1920s. Some of the most famous beret-wearers of this period included Ernest Hemingway, Edith Piaf, and Jean Harlow.
A Revolutionary Staple of the Modern Era
When the cultural and political upheaval of the 1960s emerged, the beret was there to make a bold statement. Che Guevara and Fidel Castro both sported black berets during the Cuban Revolution. In the 1970s, the Black Panthers and other groups adopted the beret to enhance their tough, militaristic social reputations.
Today’s beret wearers often view the cap as a throwback to the revolutionaries of yesteryear. Some sport the beret in reference to artists like Pablo Picasso or starlets like Marlene Dietrich. Meanwhile, Beyoncé wore the beret as a homage to the Black Panthers at the 2016 Super Bowl 50 halftime show.
Flatter than a cloche and more weather-ready than a straw fedora, the humble beret has proved one thing in its storied history: it is as rugged as it is resilient. In short, the beret is here to stay!