The simple black French béret has been a popular image and symbol of France for a long time and while many believe it originated from the Basque region, in truth it is from another region of France entirely.
Only two beret making factories remain in operation today compared to 30 factories in 1945. One factory, Blancq-Olibet S.A. (orignally created in 1819 to manufacture linen sheets), is located in Nay, in the Hautes Pyrénées, and started producing bérets on an industrial scale in 1832; the other factory is Beatex, situated in Oloron-Sainte-Marie in the Haut-Béarn. Along with its béret factory, the town of Nay is also famous for having the only béret museum in the world. Other than learning how a béret is made, you’ll discover a portrait gallery depicting the many famous celebrities who have worn this very French cap (ex. General Montgomery, Greta Garbo, Madonna, Che Guevara, Hemingway, Claudia Schiffer).
The Béret’s Shape
The word béret comes from the Latin word “birrus” or “birrum”, itself derived from two Greek words; “birros” meaning a sort of overblouse and “purros” meaning brown or russet. The classical French béret is a brimless, loose-fitting, round flat cap made from the finest wool and dyed in either black or navy blue and has a short tab on top. The Basque béret is partially lined and has a stiff leatherette band, which is stitched around the inside of the béret, making it fit snugly on the head without it slipping off. Modern French hat designers have slightly modified the classical style, using wool felt or acrylic and have developed a wide assortment of bright fashionable colours to suit all tastes.
The first béret on record appears to be at the beginning of the Middle Minoan period around 1750 B.C. in Ancient Crete when archaeologists uncovered a figurine of a woman wearing a huge, bill-shaped “beret”, striped vertically, and worn on the back of her head. Other reports suggest that the Romans acquired the beret from the Greeks, known by them as a “pilos” around 1st century AD.
The Romans called it a beretino and may have actually been the ones to invent the true beret. The ancient Romans even applied the colour standards to the beret — only aristocrats could wear a white one. The Middle Ages saw a beret-related item called a biretta, a round cap with a square top. Medieval Italians wore berets in a flat hat style until the the Renaissance. After the Thirty Years War, in the 17th century, berets were a fashion must all over Europe, often worn aslant with feathers.
Beret wearing fell into decline in the early part of the 1800s, as bonnets and hats with rigid rims became favoured by society. However, in 1822, a resurgence in hats worn with a sideways tilt brought berets back into fashion. Both large and flat berets made a comeback, again decorated with colorful feathers.
We then find mention of the beret becoming popular during the Spanish Carlist wars (1834-1840) and from there it became assimilated with the Basque country. Carlists wore red berets while Isabellines wore white ones.
Throughout the early part of the 1900s the béret was very widely worn in France by shepherds, farmers, painters, artists and of course French school boys. They would receive their first béret between the ages of 8 and 12 from their parents as a mark of passage into the adult world.
The French military béret originated from the the wide and floppy headdress worn by the Chasseurs alpins (mountain light infantry) from their foundation in the early 1880s. A tight-fitting version was subsequently adopted by French armoured troops towards the end of World War I. During the Second World War the béret became a symbol of French Patriotism.
Today the beret is best associated with military, police and special forces units throughout the world. Yet its endearing quality and style makes it still very much a French icon.