Beret: Origins of Style

posted on 3/14/14

What we know as the modern Beret comes from the Basques, a people living on the Spanish and French border. Very similar to to Scottish tam, a fact some attribute to the Basques and Scots being both great fishers and seagoing folk, the beret has long been apart of European culture, going back to pre-Roman times.

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Onion Johnny: The French Beret Stereotype

Despite it’s origins from the Basques, in popular culture the beret is depicted as being singularly French in the common perception. While it is true that area of origin did include France, the beret is considered more a distinct sign of southwestern France (perhaps similar in someways to cowboy hats in the south of the United States), one of the origins of this beret wearing Frenchman stereotype comes from the concept of an “Onion Johnny“, importers of produce, mainly onions, from Brittany. The image of man in a beret with striped shirt on a bicycle covered in onions, for many Brits, this was their local impression of the french.

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Usage of the Beret in the Military

Thought it’s origins are strongly working class, non-warfare nature, the beret has being used in the Military context as well. One of the most early example of the beret in this context is the Carlist Wars of Succession for the Spanish Crown, where the need for headgear which was both mountainous weather resistant and formal was required. Later, the Scottish forces we also known for wearing blue berets in the 16th and 17th century. it’s continued usage through the centuries and decades can be attributed to many factors, including the ease of storage of the floppy beret, the inexpensive manufacture and the ability to wear headphones with the beret, (this making it ideal for British Tank Corps) and of course, one of the most storied military units to adopt the hat, America’s Special Forces specializing in unconventional warfare, the Green Berets.

Intelligentsia and Revolution
Apart from even the Military, French and working class connections, the beret also has its place within more ideological realms, chiefly the Intellectual and the Revolutionary. It is relevant to mention both of these in the same context because, often in the fashion/intellectual context, the beret is chosen because of it’s connection to the Revolutionary uses of the Beret. The most well known examples of the beret in the revolutionary context are in the iconic image of Che Guevera, also the black beret was the chapeau of choice for many Black Panther Party members.

Be it fashion, military, casual or revolutionary, the beret always retains a strange shifting meaning, quite a feat for a floppy, featureless piece of cloth!

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