History of the French Beret
The French beret, that little pancake of a hat, has become the recognized symbol of all things French – 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.
It certainly 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 years. From shepherd to artist, soldier to film star, the beret has identified and conveyed the mood of its wearer.
Even though the beret has a strong association with France, it has been worn in many parts of the world throughout history, and the French don’t claim to have invented it. In fact, they credit Noah (from the Bible) 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 (and perspiring feet) 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.
Thanks to the factories there was an abundance of berets and the little cap spread far and wide. When industrialization started and many from the southwest moved to cities for work, they took their trusty head covering with them and the beret became recognized as a workman’s cap.
But it wasn’t only for physical laborers. From the mid-1800s to the early 1900s, the Parisian artists of the Left Bank adopted the beret as part of their artistic image. Maybe they wanted to imitate the great artists of the Renaissance such as Rembrandt, or maybe they just needed to keep their heads warm when they weren’t able to pay the rent. Whatever the reason, artists such as Monet, Cezanne, Marie Laurencin, Picasso, and many others enjoyed wearing and painting the beret. The little cap is now inextricably linked with the image of the artist.
In 1889, the French military adopted a large floppy beret as part of the uniform for their elite mountain infantry called the “Chasseurs Alpins.” During the First World War, the British general in charge of the newly formed tank regiment saw these French caps as a solution to his problem: how the men could climb through the small hatch of the tanks without knocking their hats off. The beret was adopted as military headgear by many countries.
Traditionally, the beret was a man’s hat, even though some women were sporting them as early as the 1800s. But the big change came in the 1930s when Coco Chanel, who was famous for taking comfortable men’s clothing and adapting it for women, made the beret a fashion statement for the ladies. Then movie stars such as Greta Garbo and Brigitte Bardot wore them in films and the beret has remained a female fashion accessory ever since.
That’s One Expressive Hat
It seems that the humble little beret can be worn by almost anyone and can be formed to fit any face or mood. You can wear it flat on top of your head, slanted to one side, with the fullness at the front or the back, or you can even pull it straight down to keep those ears warm. Wearing a beret can express your country roots, artistic flair, or fashion sense, and it especially suits those who like to show their individuality.
So whether you want to portray yourself as villain or hero, simpleton or intellectual, the beret can help you define your image. It’s more than just a hat – it is a state of mind.
*In the next post, we’ll find out how this adaptable cap became the symbol of the Frenchman as viewed by the English speaking world.
More about France – You can read more stories like this in my book Berets, Baguettes, and Beyond.
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