I am not really a hat person, but when I do wear a hat, it's a beret. I own five: in black, navy, charcoal grey, yellow and red. I find the yellow one the jauntiest, but really struggle to match it with outfits because it's easy to look like you're in uniform if, like me, you wear a lot of block colours.
When I wear my caponcho (my navy-blue knitted poncho with epaulettes, brass buttons and arm slits, like a cape) with my yellow beret, the effect is very Madeline:
I end up wearing the black one most often. This was a miserable wet autumn evening in the Carlton Gardens, when I basically wore it to keep my head warm and dry.
Most recently, I purchased a bright red beret at Savers. However, I couldn't really decide how to wear it.
So I decided to investigate the beret's history, to see how it was actually worn. While beret-like soft hats have been worn throughout Europe since ancient times, what we think of as the beret is the traditional headgear of Basque shepherds in the Pyrenees between France and Spain. In the Pyrenees it's worn straight across the forehead and piled loosely on the crown.
They began to be made commercially during the 17th century; Oloron-Sainte-Marie in south-western France became known as the beret capital. By the 19th century, beret-making had become industrialised. The beret was the working-man's hat – worn by Breton onion-sellers along with striped Breton shirts, it became part of the 'Onion Johnny' French stereotype that circulated in England after these farmers brought their produce across the English Channel to sell.
Soldiers have worn berets for hundreds of years – especially those who come from mountainous terrain, the beret's traditional home – but it first became internationally known when French mercenaries fought in the 1830s Spanish civil war between the crown and the Carlist rebels. The beret was later adopted during the 1880s by the French Chasseurs alpins.
But it was a new technological development that made it the ubiquitous military signifier it is today: the tank. Basically, soldiers' brimmed and peaked uniform hats – designed to shade the eyes – just got in the way in the cramped spaces of armoured vehicles, while wearing goggles and headphones.
French tank crews in WWI wore berets, and despite some grumblings that they looked too 'feminine', the British Tank Corps adopted them as early as 1918 – usually in black, which didn't show the oil stains from the tank. (The UK now has nine different colours for different branches of its military – the most in the world.)
Military berets have a drawstring and a leather band around the edge to keep them in place. My grey beret apes this style. Today, they're favoured by elite units – the US Army Special Forces are known as Green Berets – and UN peacekeepers are instantly recognisable by their sky-blue berets.
These military associations have also made berets popular among revolutionaries.
"LOL, Fidel forgot his beret!"
In Scotland, beret-style hats with pompoms have been worn since the 15th century; but the poet Robert Burns nicknamed them the Tam O'Shanter, after the hero of his 1790 epic poem. But what's interesting is that in the 1920s, tam o'shanters were popular sportswear for teenage girls. As fashion historian Geoff Caulton notes, historical photos show sporting teams wearing tam o'shanters.
During the 1920s, berets were worn pulled down low over the ears, the same way as cloche hats:
But during the 1930s – when hats became more sculptural and were worn tipped back at a jaunty angle, berets were also worn this way.
In Bonnie and Clyde (1967), set in the 1930s, Faye Dunaway wears a beret, alternating between wearing it straight on her crown, but with the mass of fabric to one side (which is my own preferred way to wear berets)…
…to wearing it on the side of the head, '30s-style.
By the 1960s, berets tended to be worn tipped backwards on the head, like pillbox hats:
That's how Peggy Olson wears her tam o'shanter in Mad Men:
Almost as big a beret cliché as the stripey-shirted Frenchman is the 1950s beatnik in a beret, black turtleneck and cigarette-legged pants. But berets have a long history among artists and bohemians.
In 1659, Rembrandt painted his Self-Portrait With Beret and Turned-Up Collar. He also painted himself wearing a beige beret; scholars argue this is in homage to similar paintings by Titian and Raphael. Thus, the beret signifies Rembrandt's trade as a painter.
In 1886, Claude Monet also painted himself wearing a beret. And in 1888, Vincent van Gogh painted his friend Paul Gauguin as Man in a Red Beret:
Pablo Picasso was well known for wearing berets, especially late in his life:
When Picasso's work was shown in Britain's Institute of Contemporary Arts during the late 1940s and 1950s, his acolytes would show up to the exhibition wearing berets, which became a common item of lost property. Around the same time, American jazz musicians and writers began to wear them. (Interestingly, 1960s musicians seemed much more into Greek fishermen's caps; Bob Dylan wore one in 1962, and they took America by storm when John Lennon wore one on the Beatles' 1964 tour.)
Ernest Hemingway was a massive beret aficionado. He'd served in WWI in Italy, lived in Paris during the 1920s, and was a foreign correspondent during the Spanish Civil War in the 1930s. Perhaps the beret was his way of showing he belonged in Europe.
Hemingway (far left) on the 1925 trip to Spain that would inspire The Sun Also Rises.
Hemingway in Spain during the Civil War, 1937.
Perhaps it's in Hemingway – in many ways an intensely macho figure, yet one who, like Picasso, inspired legions of slavish young boho imitators – that the beret's military, creative and cosmopolitan European meanings coalesce.