Like champagne, baguette, and macaron, the beret is an iconic symbol synonymous with France.
Berets were originally worn by French shepherds centuries ago. They believed (correctly) that if wool could keep sheep cool in summer, dry in inclement weather, and warm in winter, the same principle should work for them. Their crude, wool (from the sheep they kept), pancake-shaped hats, however, were not as stylish as the versions we are familiar with today.
Since 1840, The Maison Laudhere, located in the Pyrenees foothills, has been manufacturing berets. Originally their berets were hand-knit in one piece using the finest Merino wool. The tale (called a stalk) was made by tying off the ends of the fibres.
Although Maison Laudhere no longer knits their berets by hand, they are made much the same today. After being machined knit, it is felted by immersing it in warm, soapy water, which thickens the wool fibres and makes it water-resistant. It’s then dyed and shaped by placing wooden semi-circles along the inside rim until dry. Scratching and shaving the beret gives the felt a soft feel. Any embellishments and/or labels are added, and a final “grooming” is done with a vegetable fibre brush.
The French military has worn berets since the late 1800s. In 1924 the British adopted the beret as part of the uniform for their tank regiments because they stayed on while climbing in and out of the tank’s tight spaces. Not long after, berets became part of military uniforms for countries around the world.
I was given my dad’s beret (and military medals), which I will forever treasure. My dad (in photo) was part of the Calgary Tank Regiment in WWII.
Berets have been fashionable throughout the ages…popular with the “Left Bank” writers (Hemingway and friends photo left) in Paris during the 1920s-30s, and revolutionaries like Che Guevara in the 1960s.
Coco Chanel was a trailblazer fashion designer whose fondness for men’s fashion was often incorporated into her personal style, as well as the fashions she created for women. She was the first designer to include berets (only worn by men at that time) in a collection she presented in 1930. Chanel was often photographed wearing a beret usually adorned with another love of her’s, costume jewellery.
I especially love the Dior veiled berets (below) that have been part of their collections in recent years. The added touch of tulle is so elegant!
During a telephone conversation with my daughter, I talked (at length!) about how fabulous the fashion was in the Netflix film, “Rebecca”. In particular, I raved about a blue beret worn by the lead actress, Lily James.
After an extensive search (on her part) she surprised me with this blue beret (in photo) as part of my Christmas gift. I haven’t worn it yet…there’s nowhere to go…but I confess I’m not sure I have that certain “je ne sais quoi” to do it justice!