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Beret-like headwear has been worn across Europe since pre-Roman times. Mass production began in 19th century France, Spain and Italy, countries with which it remains associated. Berets are worn as part of the uniform of many military and police units worldwide, as well as by other organizations.
The French word béret, from which the English term derives, is based on the Béarnais Berret, a "sort of flat woollen cap, worn by the local peasants". It was first mentioned 1835 in French and in the 19th century in English. This word is related to the English biretta "clerical square cap", borrowed itself from the Spanish birrete of the same etymology. Most specialists think it is a diminutive form biretum of the Low Latin birrum, which means "sort of short cloak with a hood" ["cuculla brevis"], that is from Gaulish birros "short". This word is a close relative to Old Irish berr "short", Welsh byr, Breton berr "short", all thought to be from Proto-Celtic *birro-. The Greek word βίρρος is borrowed from Latin.
Archaeology and art history indicate that headgear similar to the modern beret has been worn since the Bronze Age across northern Europe and as far south as ancient Crete and Italy, where it was worn by the Minoans, Romans and Etruscans. Such headgear has been popular among the nobility and artists across Europe throughout modern history.
The Basque style beret was the traditional headgear of Aragonese and Navarrian shepherds from the Ansó and Roncal valleys of the Pyrenees, a mountain range that divides southern France from northern Spain. The commercial production of Basque style berets began in the 17th century in the Oloron-Sainte-Marie area of southern France. Originally a local craft, beret-making became industrialized in the nineteenth century. The first factory, Beatex-Laulhere, claims production records dating back to 1810. By the 1920s, berets were associated with the working classes in a part of France and Spain and by 1928 more than 20 French factories and some Spanish and Italian factories produced millions of berets.
In Western fashion, men and women have worn the beret since the 1920s as sportswear and later as a fashion statement.
Military berets were first adopted by the French Chasseurs Alpins in 1889. After seeing these during World War I, British General Hugh Elles proposed the beret for use by the newly-formed Royal Tank Regiment, which needed headgear that would stay on while climbing in and out of the small hatches of tanks. They were approved for use by King George V in 1924. The black RTR beret was made famous by Field Marshal Montgomery in World War II.
The beret fits snugly around the head, and can be "shaped" in a variety of ways – in the Americas it is commonly worn pushed to one side. In Central and South America, local custom usually prescribes the manner of wearing the beret; there is no universal rule and older gentlemen usually wear it squared on the head, jutting forward. It can be worn by both men and women.
Military uniform berets feature a headband or sweatband attached to the wool, made either from leather, silk, or cotton ribbon, sometimes with a drawstring allowing the wearer to tighten the hat. The drawstrings are, according to custom, either tied and cut off/tucked in or else left to dangle. The beret is often adorned with a cap badge, either in cloth or metal. Some berets have a piece of buckram or other stiffener in the position where the badge is intended to be worn.
Berets are not usually lined, but many are partially lined with silk or satin. In military berets, the headband is worn on the outside; military berets often have external sweatbands of leather, pleather or ribbon. The traditional beret (also worn by selected military units, such as the Belgian Chasseurs Ardennais or the French Chasseurs Alpins), usually has the "sweatband" folded inwardly. In such a case, these berets have only an additional inch or so of the same woolen material designed to be folded inwardly.
New beret styles, fully lined and made of "Polar fleece", have become popular. These are unique in that they are machine washable.
National traditions and variants
In Spain, depending upon the region, the beret is usually known as the boina (from the Latin abonnis to the Aragonese word boina which was adopted by Spanish) or chapela (from the Basque, txapela) and sometimes it is also called the chapo (from the French chapeau). They were once common men's headwear across the cooler north of the country, in regions of Aragon, Navarre, the Basque Country, Cantabria, Asturias and Galicia and nearby areas.
Berets came to be popularized across Europe and other parts of the world as typical Basque headgear, as reflected in their name in several languages (e.g. béret basque in French, Baskenmütze in German, Basco in Italian or baskeri in Finnish). They are very popular and common in the Basque Country. The colors adopted for folk costumes varied by region, red in Gipuzkoa, white in Álava, blue in Biscay, but eventually the Basques settled on blue berets and the people of Navarre and Aragon adopted red berets while the black beret became the common headgear of workers in France and Spain. The small stub in the centre of a beret is sometimes known by its Basque name, txortena meaning "stalk".
The black beret was once considered the national cap of France in Anglo-Saxon countries and is part of the stereotypical image of the Onion Johnny. It is no longer as widely worn as it once was, but it remains a strong sign of local identity in the south west of France. When French people want to picture themselves as "the typical average Frenchman" in France or in a foreign country, they often use this stereotype from Anglo-Saxon countries. There are only two manufacturers left in France, Laulhère and Blancq-Olibet. The beret still remains a strong symbol of the unique identity of southwestern France and is worn, while celebrating traditional events.
There are several Scottish variants of the beret, notably the Scottish bonnet or Bluebonnet (originally bonaid in Gaelic), whose ribbon cockade and feathers identify the wearer’s clan and rank), and which is a symbol of Scottish patriotism. Other Scottish types include the tam-o'-shanter (named by Robert Burns after a character in one of his poems) and the striped Kilmarnock cap, both of which feature a large pompom in the centre.
As uniform headgear
The beret's practicality has long made it an item of military and other uniform clothing (see military beret and uniform beret). Among a few well known historic examples are the Scottish soldiers, who wore the blue bonnet in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the Volontaires Cantabres, a French force raised in the Basque country in the 1740s to the 1760s, who also wore a blue beret, and the Carlist rebels, with their red berets, in 1830s Spain.
In fashion and culture
The beret is part of the long-standing stereotype of the intellectual, film director, artist, "hipsters", poet, bohemians and beatniks. In America and Britain, the middle of the twentieth century saw an explosion of berets in women's fashion. In the later part of the twentieth century, the beret was adopted by the Chinese both as a fashion statement and for its political undertones.
As a revolutionary symbol
In the 1960s several activist groups adopted the black beret. These include the Black Panther Party of the United States, formed in 1966, the "Black Beret Cadre" (a similar Black Power organisation in Bermuda), the Provisional Irish Republican Army and the ETA guerrillas (who wore black berets over hoods in public appearances). In addition, the Brown Berets were a Chicano organisation formed in 1967. The Young Lords Party, a Latino revolutionary organization in the United States in the 1960s and 1970s, also wore berets.
Adherents of the Rastafari movement often wear a very large knitted or crocheted black beret with red, gold, and green circles atop their dreadlocks. The style is often erroneously called a kufi, after the skullcap known as kufune. They consider the beret and dreadlocks to be symbols of the biblical covenant of God with his chosen people, the "black Israelites".
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