The History of the Beret
For the renegades, the rebels and the revolutionaries; for the poor, the pretty and the pariahs. For those at the heart and on the very fringes of society – the beret is a hat of choice for those who want to take action, to stand out from the crowd. This post is not conclusive nor reductive, it is simply a brief history of a hat whose symbology and connotations are relentlessly re-worked and re-cycled. It’s the ultimate hat of change and non-conformity.
The beret’s beginnings locates itself in the Bronze Age, Ancient Greece, and through the former half of the second millennium in Germany, France and Spain. All taking on different sizes and styles, the core of the beret was its mundane material: felt. Cheap cloth that was inexpensive to produce meant the beret was accessible to anyone. From servants to sheepherders, the hat was championed for its practicality in regards to the weather as opposed to its aesthetic or political value. One of our favourite types of beret, the Tam – or Tam O’Shanter to be precise – had its origins right here in the UK. During the 18th century, Robert Burns – one of Scotland’s most notable figures – coined the term ‘Tam’ for a beret which had a neat bobble on top of it.
It was only during the 19th century that the beret took on a politically charged meaning: Tomás de Zumalacárregui – the leader and the powerful poster boy of the Spanish Carlists – wore a striking red beret to drive troops forward during the Second Carlist war. The beret’s political connotations then exploded; during the First World War, berets were the headgear of choice – of course not on the frontline – but in order to evoke allegiance and authority. The French wore blue berets, the Brits, black. The lip of the beret had been upturned, making way for the display of badges that told of rank and status. From one battle to another, the beret literally represented war and revolution.
Painting of a Carlist | Tomas de Zumalacárregui | Portrait of a Carlist
The beret then made its biggest step from war to wardrobe. It was still a rebellious battlecry, but just not such a literal one. During the early half of the twentieth century, Edith Piaf, Ernest Hemingway, Arletty, Pablo Picasso and Lauren Bacall; artists to actors, musicians and muses all wore the felt headwear in order to signify the chic, the bohemian, and their existence on the cusp of the mainstream. Chanel had stolen the beret right off the heads of men and placed them fashionably on women. Now unisex, unified, and hip, the beret began its travels in the art and fashion world.
The fifties was when the beret began its true renaissance. Whilst Dior opted for flowing, a-line shapes and loose fabrics, the beatniks from both the UK and America chose taut and tight clothing and turtlenecks in every shade from midnight to liquorice and everything in between. Black was piled on upon black, and the traditional beret suited this uniform perfectly. The beat movement – whilst holding an abbreviated existence – was one of the coolest countercultures of the century: a group of people who were ‘down and out, but who had intense conviction.’ Aloof artists and writers such as Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg fronted the scene, outwardly channeling the frustrations of many through the rejection of the mainstream in favour of artistic self-expression. One of the ultimate subcultures for subversion, the beatnik scene is simply defined by the intellectual underground. Go to a smoky coffee shop, sunglasses on – not forgetting your beret – and listen to sultry jazz . It was hippie even before hippy knew itself.
The late 1960s and 1970s was arguably the political and fashion peak for the beret: it became a symbol of resistance through activist groups like the Black Panthers and Guardian Angels; it was adopted by musical iconoclasts: Johnny Rotten, Paul Simonon, Bob Marley, Debbie Harry and David Bowie all sported the headgear in – a now – varying of different styles. Whether it was military deadstock or pretty in pink – re-purposed and re-newed berets were back as the hat of choice for the rebels. Swirling from song to screen, it was also enjoying its course in cinema. The feminist fugitive Bonnie was played by a beret-donning Faye Dunaway in the ’67 cult-classic ‘Bonnie and Clyde’ and Jean-Luc Godard’s absolute muse Anna Karina was known for wearing a variety of the hats. Simultaneously inside and outside of the mainstream, those who chose to wear the beret have become symbols of subversion and unquestionable cool.
Fast forward to the twentieth century and the beret still holds true its countercultural connotations. The symbolic hat that calls for action and change is still worn by those who can’t and won’t conform: Izzy of Black Honey, Nova Twins, FKA Twigs and Winnie Harlow are all activists and antagonists in their respective fields and often choose to wear berets. Eddie Izzard recently wore a pink beret to an anti-Brexit march and the hat has also been re-cycled by brave bloggers and brands in more recent years with even more badges, safety pins and eyelets than ever before.
The enduring strength and authority that comes from the beret lies in its ability to constantly take on new meaning. It is never stationary – it is constantly being renewed and re-visioned. It never looks backward, but rather, always forward. It is exactly at the heart of what we do at Underground, and we are proud to produce our own version of the ‘Tam’ beret: punctured and decorated with safety pins, patches and badges, our Berets seek to carry on the evolution and revolution of the beret.
The beret is an emblem of action, change and exploit; of subversion, challenge and rebellion.
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