Surprisingly, rather than the French claiming all credit for inventing the beret, people tend to reference Noah (from the Bible) with the earliest ideas. Legend has it that when Noah was bobbing around on his ark with all his animals, and getting soaked, he noticed that the trampled wool on the floor in the sheep pen had transformed into something we now call felt. Apparently, he cut out a circle, shoved it on his head to keep his hair dry, and the first ever beret was born.
Taking a leap into more modern times, credit is due to the 17th-century shepherds in the French regions of Béarn, Basque, and French Pyrenees for popularizing this headgear. After observing how wool kept sheep at optimum temperature through both warmth and Winter, they decided to reap the benefits themselves, filling their shoes to keep their feet warm. The force of walking on the wool all day, helped by the humidity from the moist ground and sweaty feet, made the fibers stick together and yielded the technique of compression used in making felt. However, their talents didn’t lie in making hats, particularly given the stench involved in their method of compressing with the feet, which is where the fashion connaisseurs took over.
In the historical gap between shepherds wearing berets as protection and before hitting the fashion scene, they were adopted by the Parisian artists of the Left Bank as part of their iconic style. From the mid-1800s to the early 1900s, this accessory had become a staple of artistic style among artists like Monet, Cezanne, Marie Laurencin, Picasso, and many others. While some people say this is because they longed to imitate the great masters of the Renaissance like Rembrandt, others say it’s more likely due to the simple fact that most artists in this era were poor, and needed to keep their heads warm when they couldn’t pay their rent.
The Chasseurs Alpins (Alpine chasers) are the elite mountain infantry of the French Army, trained to operate in the most difficult and treacherous mountainous terrains, and the floppy French beret has been proudly flaunted as part of their official uniform since 1889. An interesting fact behind why the beret has been adopted as the official military headgear in many countries goes back to the First World War. The British general leading the newly formed tank regiment figured these French hats could be the miracle answer to one of his greatest problems: soldiers climbing through the small hatch of tanks would usually knock their hats off. But no longer once the beret was introduced.
The beret turned into a symbol of the French resistance when fighting against the Nazi German occupation of France and the collaborationist Vichy régime during World War II. A chilling example of just how symbolic this hat became was shared when the résistant Joseph Barthelet told the British SOE agent George Miller about when he saw the German military police march into the Feldgendarmerie in Metz a group of Frenchmen, one of whom was a friend. Barthelt recalled: “I recognized him only by his hat. Only by his hat, I tell you and because I was waiting on the roadside to see him pass. I saw his face all right, but there was no skin on it, and he could not see me. Both his poor eyes had been closed into two purple and yellow bruises.”
Given that the history of the beret goes back to alpine shepherds, it probably isn’t so surprising to learn that traditionally, the beret was a man’s hat. The move to women sporting this hat began as early as the 1800s, but the ultimate credit goes to Coco Chanel in the 1930s. This queen of fashion was famous for taking comfortable men’s clothes and adapting them for women, inspiring a whole host of movie stars like Greta Garbo and Brigitte Bardot to flaunt them in films and spur other ladies to take up the trend. The beret has remained an iconic fashion accessory ever since.
There is no universal rule to wear it, making it one of the most flexible items of fashion accessories in the world. While older gentlemen tend to wear it squared on the head, jutting forward, there is endless freedom for women fashionistas who can arrange and re-arrange their pigtails, ponytails, fringe, and side ponytails to create many different looks and match a number of different outfits. But it’s not just a redundant accessory, because, as well as being waterproof, it’s also resistant to ultraviolet light.
The American Basque Beret, a beret made in France for The American Basque Beret Company in the 1950s, used to come packaged up with details of some incredibly strange traditions and legends. These included the marriage traditions of ancient Rome, where, apparently, a male who wished to become engaged to a girl would simply snatch off her beret to symbolize that she had been accepted. Other legends they used to print included the fabrication of berets made from the hair of departed relatives as a sign of respect, practiced in remote tribes in Tibet.