Monday, October 17, 2011

Le béret: French icon, military symbol, fashion statement

The original French Béret
Blancq-Olibet advertisement (1930s)

A friend of mine noticed that I have been covering quite a few French icons over the last few months. A very astute observation. I took my readers for a ride in the Citroën 2 CV; together we strolled along the Seine river; met Gustave Eiffel and traveled back in time to the 1889 World Fair; finally, we sat down and enjoyed coffee and lively conversation at a Parisian café.

Something was missing. When so many blogs are dedicated to fashion, I realized I had only written one story about la mode, a tribute to Coco Chanel and her eponymous fragrance, Chanel no. 5. Surely, there was more to contribute about the French sense of style... 

Eh bien, mesdames et messieurs, today I give you... le béret. "The beret?", you ask. That funny, round, flat hat, worn by the military - and a few revolutionaries ? 

John Wayne, The Green Berets (1968)
Have you ever seen a photo of Le Che without his faithful beret?

"Chasseurs alpins" - France
(elite French mountain infantry corps)

United Nations Peacekeepers

Oui. Le béret. One of the most famous couvre-chefs (hats) ever. Le béret, like the Eiffel Tower, the baguette, or Edith Piaf, is a symbol of France, instantly recognizable the world over. 

This MUST be a French cat!

A French poodle -- How perfect is that?

The French can't really claim they invented the beret. The Greeks, the Romans, wore beret-like hats. Classical paintings reveal that the beret was fashionable in Europe as early as the Renaissance. 

A young Henry VIII (England, 1509)

Rembrandt, self-portrait with velvet beret
Young Lady in a beret
Jan Boeckhost, Flanders, mid-17th century

Two regions in France claim they are the home of the beret: the Basque country and the Bearn. They are both located in the Southwest, north of the Pyrenees and the Spanish border. The word "béret" comes from the old gascon dialect ("berret".) Both the Bearn and the Basque Country belonged to an ancient French province, la Gascogne (Gascony.) I wrote about it in this story

Pays Basque (in red) - Bearn (in blue)

As early as the Middle Ages, berets could be found on the heads of Spanish shepherds, watching over their flock in the Pyrenee mountains. It is likely that in the Basque region , French shepherds took notice of their stylish neighbors' warm and sturdy hat; started wearing it and made it their own. The famous "béret basque" was born, and commercial production  took off in the area in the 17th century, becoming fully industrialized in the 19th century. Mass production exploded in the 1920s, when the beret became the favorite hat of the working class. French boys started wearing berets at an early age. Groups of children could often be seen playing games involving a beret. 

Beret Boys

French children, Lyon, France (1940s)
Children playing "Le jeu du béret" (the beret game) in 1964

Making the perfect beret is a time-consuming and complex process. Top-quality wool is wetted and shaped until it becomes dense, soft, and 100% waterproof. The traditional beret also includes a leather headband, folded in, or worn outside (by the military for example.) 

There are only two beret manufacturers left in Southern France: Blancq-Olibet and Beatex-Laulhere, who claim they started production in 1850 and 1810, respectively. The traditional beret color in the Basque region was brown, but most berets manufactured today are black or navy blue. There is even a beret museum in Nay, a small town in the Bearn region!

Authentic "Béret basque"

The beret can be worn in a variety of positions, illustrated by a French language teacher in this entertaining video.

The beret was originally made for working class men. They worked and lived, their beret securely screwed on their head, and hardly took it off. It offered the perfect protection against rain and sun; came in handy to transport cherries or mushroom in the fields, and it was even used to "correct" children's bad behavior.
Spanking or punishment by beret? 
During World War II, the beret became an emblem of French patriotism when the French Resistance adopted it. 
French Resistance fighters ("Les Maquisards")
Women were wearing berets by then, as did artists and intellectuals.
Claude Monet, self-portrait (1886)
Hemingway, covering the Spanish civil war, 1937
In the 1930s, glamorous [female] movie stars helped popularize le béret. It became an instant fashion statement.
French actress Michelle Morgan
Quai des Brumes (1938)
The Great Marlene Dietrich 
Jean Harlow
Lauren Bacall
"B.B." (Brigitte Bardot)
Catherine Deneuve
Some foreigners may still think the average French man walks around wearing a black beret. The truth is that its popularity is waning. In Southwestern France, where it remains a symbol of the local culture, older men wear it proudly, while younger generations display bright-colored berets during traditional celebrations and festivals.
In the United States, most men stay away from the béret. President Obama is currently campaigning for re-election. I would venture to say the following picture is not going to serve his cause...
Maybe he should stick to one of these [more American] hats:
One option...
Better yet...
After all, this is a look that has worked very well for other presidents...
President Clinton, a very smart man, would not have been caught dead wearing a beret. Still, a cute beret was blamed for his downfall...
And here we are today. To the French, le béret stands as a symbol of France's rural past,  and remains in favor with fashionistas and Bobos (the "bourgeois-bohême," or bohemian-bourgeois.) To other countries, it endures as a symbol of France; so iconic there are websites and blogs dedicated to the funny round, flat couvre-chef (hat.)  And that, les amis, would really impress the old Spanish and Basque shepherds!
A bientôt.


  1. OH I loved these photos. My favorite, the one that made me laugh out loud, was the one of the soldiers with the big white "pancakes" on their heads. But the petit garçons avec berets won my heart. Now if I could look like Catherine Denuve wearing one, I might consider it! :)

  2. v-simply delightful as USUAL!! during my highscool years, the navy beret was part of our uniform and was worn every first friday to mass. the entire school, with their berets on, the thought still makes me smile. i still have mine, with my name plate securly fastened(as was regulation)- made in france indeed it is and YES i still wear it because i really like it and in my opinion NEVER goes out of style. thanks yet again and enjoy your week!!-g

  3. What fun....and so informative....It is true there are less and less beret wearing folk...or that I see anyway....but I do love to see the old timers wearing them....Such a great post....xv

  4. Dearest Véronique,

    Great post again about my favorite béret! I love to wear it and yes, I got hollered at when I wore mine right after the Clinton scandal. Someone called out: 'Hey Monica!'...
    Well, as for Obama, no matter what hat he will wear, he will never ever equal the grandeur of Ronald Reagan! That was a man with such a charisma; with or without hat! I was fortunate for having many happy birthdays with him together.

    Love to you,


  5. It's a great idea - to focus on iconic French things, among which the French beret has a special significance to me. I have always worn berets until Monica Lewinsky ruined them for me in the 90s. However, since berets are classic and have real elegance, I'm glad I can still return to this accessory without any fear :)

  6. -- Virginia -- Don't we all wish we looked like Catherine Deneuve, with or without a béret!
    -- g -- Bonjour! I would love to see that béret of yours. It must be really good quality if you still have it. Does it carry a specific name or brand inside? It would be fun to look it up and see if it was made by one of the two companies I mentioned in the story.
    -- Vicki -- Thank you very much!
    -- Mariette -- Not a fan of president Obama with or without a beret, eh? ;-)
    -- Olga -- You should absolutely start wearing berets again. I am thinking about ordering a new one online through a French company...

  7. This may be the greatest collection of beret photos outside of Google in existence... truly enjoyed this... especially seeing as how I'm the owner of a classic black beret, which was given to me along with a pack of Gauloises, a baguette, a sausage, and a bottle of red wine, at a party welcoming me to France when I moved here. Had it out just the other day to wear to a party... Thanks V. !!!

  8. Wonderful post about another symbol of France! I especially loved that funny!

  9. merci véronique, pour ce post instructif et amusant. bien sûr que moi aussi j'ai tjrs un béret basque (le vrai!!!) dans mon sac où sur mon crâne, c'est indispensable avec le vélo noir de l'est parisien. mais qu'en est-il des messieurs en béret? à la campagne chez les ramasseurs de champignons, on voit surtout la casquette "gâââpette", voire la rouge type baseball. toutefois, un certain nombre d'ados "anti-n*ke ou adid*s" de ma connaissance arborent fièrement le béret et l'écharpe rouge façon jean moulin qui signifient "je suis inscrit dans une école d'art". la symbolique militaire des années 70 semble avoir bel et bien disparu.

  10. I love le beret and doesn't Claude Monet look so handsome in his beret - and Catherine Deneuve very French and classy with her beret tilted slightly onto one side.
    Thank you for this lovely post!

  11. Le post est comme toujours passionnant, plein de recherche et de fantaisie! Mais j'avoue que ça m'enerve quand je vois des Français actuels ,qui representent la France aujourd'hui, et qui s'affublent d'un beret et d'une baguette , prolongeant le stereotype, le cliché, comme si la France n'avait pas evolué!C'est comme si nous, nous pensions que tous les americains, y compris les New-Yorkais, se baladent avec un stetson! le beret fait partie de notre histoire , certes, mais justement, c'est de + en + historique!

  12. Wowsers! Who knew the beret had such a rich history! I've never been a great fan of them, but with all this newly acquired information there's a new appeal. Thanks for sharing!

  13. Hello there! I am quite late in responding because I put this aside to read when I could really take the time to enjoy it. Your posts are always so wonderful Veronique--and this was no exception! I actually have been thinking of ordering a beret and this makes me want to do so.
    PS. My honey did his army time with the Chasseurs Alpins--pas mal, non?

  14. -- Owen -- I will take this as a compliment - Oh, Master Photographer - I certainly hope you still wear that beret, even though the baguette and wine they gave you disappeared long ago!
    -- Katelyn -- Merci. That French teacher did a great job in front of a very unruly crowd!
    -- Winterludes --Le béret survit. C'est ce qui est important!
    -- Dianne -- You're welcome. I had a lot of fun researching this story.
    -- Malyss -- Je ne sais pas si les Français font vraiment exprès de "s'affubler" d'une baguette. La baguette, c'est un peu le prolongement naturel de leur bras ;-) Tu as raison, les stereotypes ont la vie dure. Inutile de les encourager.
    -- Balanced Melting Pot -- You're welcome. Go get yourself a new beret, you hear?!
    -- Lost in Provence -- Welcome back. I am very impressed that your honey joined "Les Chasseurs Alpins" for a while. This means he got to wear the prestigious "crêpe" (the huge beret on the photo.)

  15. Thank you for the ballet immersion! Wonderful research, a wealth of information!!

  16. Oh Véronique,

    J'ADORE CETTE VIDÉO!! Et le jeune instituteur est charmant! Oh, comme j'aime bien tout ce qui est français et ce billet est super. Merci de ta visite, et ma boutique Etsy n'est pas encore ouverte; je vais faire "une annonce" en quelques jours, et elle s'appelle, CASTLES CROWNS AND COTTAGES: THE SHOP." Original, non? teeheeeee....

    GROSSES BISES!!!!!! Anita

  17. Another fantastic post!! I love how much I learn from you. :)

    I love berets. They remind me of the beatnik era in the 50s, when it was cool to recite poetry in underground coffee shops and dress in black turtlenecks. Lol. But you have shown me there is so much more to them!!

    My best friend Jenn (who actually majored in French in college) used to wear berets all the time. I always envied that she could pull the look off. Hehe.

    I hope you have an awesome weekend! xoxo

  18. I hope this does become a permanent series of French icons as I am learning and enjoying so much about the new country I am living in via your blog....Greetings from the Riviera,,,

  19. Dearest Véronique,

    Funny how just at this moment I came across Carolyn's post in New Zealand and she mentions le béret et le 2CV as well!
    Had to let you know...
    Love to you,


  20. I'm an American living in Bordeaux and every time I wear a beret here someone stops me in the street and tells me how British I look, so I giggled to myself as I read your excellent post on these iconic chapeaux.

  21. This is a fantastic post. My brother-in-law is here for Thanksgiving and styling in his Anglobasque beret. ;-)
    ~ Sarah

  22. Hello! Thanks for popping in on Lindsey's post for Francofile friday. I love this post! Still curious as to why it's a symbol of Paris, but for some people that is the most of France they see! I suppose that's what I meant about misconception. Parisians don't rock berets à la mode. At least not that I've seen :)

    I love the cat with the beret!

  23. I wear an old German tanker beret from the seventies. I wear it more often than I wear actual clothing despite the chaffing from family and friends regarding it's "weirdness". Well I love it and NEVER take it off.


Bonjour! I love hearing from you, my readers. To quote a fellow blogger, my friend Owen, "Comments are the icing on blogcake... Comments are the UFO in the twilight sky bearing news from other planets... Comments are raspberry vinegar in salad dressing... Comments are the cool balm of after-sun moisturizing lotion... Comments are the moment the band comes back out onstage to play an encore... Comments are the gleam in the eye across the room in a smoky bar... Comments are the rainbow after the rainstorm..." Merci for your comments! French Girl in Seattle