Short Stories for Teachers
The ancient Greeks first used a beret style hat in the 5th century BC, 2500 years ago. The "pilos," as they called it, was practical and water tight because it lacked any seams.The Romans then adopted the floppy cap from the Greeks and referred to it as a "pilus" but eventually changed the name to "beretino." The Romans also gave the beret its true shape and decreed that only the aristocracy could wear white beretinos, giving the colored beret its first social symbolism.
Introduction to France
It was not until 1280 that the first reference to berets appeared in France. A barely discernible stone figure on a Notre Dame church portal near Orthez, France wears what is unmistakably a beret. While the Basques of northern Spain and the Basque-pays region of France are normally credited with the introduction of the beret, this church carving helps confirm that the style did, in fact, begin in the region of Béarn. In fact, berets are also mentioned in a Béarnese text from 1461, and modern author Simin Palay includes the term "beret" in his Dictionary of Béarnese and Gascon words. However, because of the continued association with the Basque region, classical berets are often referred to as "berets basques."
The Béarn and the Basque regions are mountainous areas, and herders had to travel this rocky terrain with their flocks of sheep. Knitting wool berets would have helped them keep their hands busy while watching their sheep. Once the berets were knitted, the shepherds beat them with "hammers" to turn the cloth into felt. Because the sheep provided brown wool, the early berets were probably brown. Today, only two companies in France produce berets, and both of them are located in Béarn. These modern berets often contain a leather band and are at least partially lined.
Popularization of the Beret in France
Until the 1850s, France outside of Béarn and the Basque regions had little contact with berets. Then, during the Second Empire, Napoleon III drafted many men from these areas to fight in the army against Prussia, and the men brought the style to the attention of the French people. By the 1900s, men and boys of all ages were wearing berets, and it was sometimes considered, along with a smock, part of the standard French school uniform. The beret also gained popularity in Belgium because the people there closely followed French styles. The French "Alpine Hunters," a special mountain force stationed in the alps, was the first military unit to adopt the beret.
Through the 1930s, berets maintained popularity among boys and men in France, especially in the Pyrenees mountain areas (nowadays, in Béarn, boys still consider the gift of a beret as a sign of adulthood). In fact, they were so popular that the Marquis of the French Resistance used them as under-the-radar uniforms during World War II. During this time, American women also began to consider the beret fashionable. However, they wore the beret pulled down instead of in wearing it in a flat pancake shape the way that the French did. Artists and anarchists in France and all over the world adopted the black beret as a symbol of their cultures . Yet while the beret gained foreign recognition after World War II, its cultural importance in France declined, most notably in terms of men and boys. Hence, although berets still hold significance in areas such as Béarn, tourists visiting Paris will have to be content with wine and bread when looking to satisfy their stereotyped expectations.