"Fashion is the armour to survive the reality of everyday life."
As headwear go, few are as simple as the beret. The subtly tailored round cap is almost always woven in one piece without a seam or binding in knitted wool or woollen flannel. There are a variety of ways to style them: Sharply angled, jutting forward, tilted backward, or just sitting atop your head, there really is no universal rule to the manner of wearing the beret.
But as simplistic as the accessory is, the beret encompasses a rich mix of historical and cultural meanings. And for Autumn/Winter 2017, it is back to reinterpret the modern take on the timeless fashion statement. Maria Grazia Chiuri introduced Dior’s version of the headpiece (crafted by master milliner Stephen Jones) and had them styled with her blue-washed collection.
“I love berets because they’re the t-shirts of hats–young, old, rich, poor, male, female, child, baby. A beret suits everybody,” says Jones in an interview with Fashion Unfiltered. His remarks didn’t come out of nowhere. Berets are suitable for everyone because they are indeed, once worn by people from all walks of life.
Widely acknowledged to be first worn the assemblage in the Bronze Age across Northern Europe, including Greece and Italy, the beret’s modern origin is found in Basques. People living in the Pyrenees mountain range that divides Southern France from Northern Spain are great fishermen and sailors, which explains the similarity between the beret and the Scotch tam o’ shanter, the traditional Scottish bonnet worn by men.
The 17th century saw the first surge in popularity for the beret. In Italy, it became highly fashionable, especially among nobility and artists; In France, the Basque-style beret started its commercial production in the Oloron-Sainte-Marie region in Southern France.
How did the beret officially came to France is unknown, but it is unquestionable that it is the very place that adapted it to iconic heights, and eventually, became the stereotypical emblem of the French. “French people really do have a thing with their berets,” says Jody Liu, a fashion design apprentice in Paris. “because of all the history that comes with the hat, I would say that it still requires a certain sense of confidence to wear them, but people in Paris really do, in a way, wear them with a hint of attachment and pride".
Worn by peasants and artists alike, they had a sense of classlessness that was favoured by the intellectuals in Paris in the early 20th century.
And during the Resistance movement in WWII, the beret is opted to symbolise the French nationalism and had finally entered public’s consciousness as a political accessory. With the French as predecessors, the beret has gradually become an integral part of military uniforms across the globe. Often, different colours were used to distinguish forces, among which the most established being the Green Berets representing the USA Special Forces.
Perhaps the most famous beret wearer in the world, Che Guevera’s dark beret made it a worldwide symbol of the revolutionary guerrilla warrior. Since then, they have also been associated other revolutionaries like the Black Panther in the late 1960s and New York’s crime-fighting Guardian Angels in the late 1970s.
However, the beret’s fashion attitude goes beyond its social and political links. Long adored with artists like Rembrandt and Picasso, film directors, writers and bohemians, the headpiece has also set the look for characters throughout film history.
“Once again, because of its rich history and versatility, the beret can also embrace a wide spectrum of possibilities, which makes it the perfect styling piece. Put it on different people in different settings, and the beret will do its magic,” says Liu.
The classic black beret awoke with its elegance flair when Lauren Bacall wore hers slanted to the side in the 1946 film The Big Sleep; The ingénue Anna Karina sported her perky berets in the classic French New Wave film A Woman is a Woman (1961); Faye Dunaway in Bonnie and Clyde (1967), slouching against a car, with a beret on her blonde head of locks and a handgun in hand.
All the way to the 1990s, who could forget Cher in Clueless, portrayed by Alicia Silverstone, and Julia Roberts in the Richard Curtis film Notting Hill, who both completed the characters’ signature looks with the classic and versatile adornment?
Dramatic yet simplistic, classless yet classic, the beret had risen to spiritual peak, fallen into twee; been celebrated for its chic, and disregarded for its cliché. There’s quite a history with these flat caps of style. But there’s one thing for certain: it’ll never be gone and is in fact, marching fearlessly for a comeback.
Meg is a full-time fashion journalism student at London College of Fashion, University of the Arts London. She moved to London at the age of 18 to pursue her dreams of becoming a writer.