Fashion

The Political History of the Beret

by Kristen Bateman
12.27.2017
The reprise of a fashion favorite is packed full of political and artistic undertones.

As fashion month came to an end this season, the beret was everywhere on the runway, street style stars, and celebs. Elsa Hosk, Rihanna, and Bella Hadid topped off their outfits with the classic hat in all iterations. Earlier this month, Solange too wore a very French version of the hat, styled with a pair of statement earrings.

The most influential high fashion beret moment as of late came courtesy of Dior, when designer Maria Grazia Chiuri sent models down the fall 2017 runway wearing leather versions — available now and coveted by every cool girl under the sun. Paul and Joe, Oscar de la Renta, and Dior again experimented with the look for Spring 2018 collections, too, guaranteeing we'll likely see more berets in the future. But why is the hat so popular now?

The beret has a long and storied history that transcends fashion. Politics, in particular, play a bigger role than meets the eye, and the beret has long been a hat associated with rebels.

As much divisiveness exists about how to wear the beret — pulled back, to the side ever so slightly or clipped to one's hair at an angle — there's an equal amount of disscusion about the hat's place in history. Many associate the hat with Fidel Castro and Che Guevara, while others immediately think of Faye Dunaway as Bonnie in the iconic Bonnie and Clyde film.

 

"On one hand, it's an iconic chapeau associated with French artists, philosophers, and schoolgirls, a symbol as iconic as a baguette or the Eiffel Tower. But it also has a tough, menacing side, as a part of military uniform worn by the Green Berets and the French Navy, among others."

The beret itself has roots in various countries around the world, each with its own style. The French version for example, is slightly different than a Scottish or Spanish beret. But typically, the hat has been made of affordable felt since its beginnings, lending itself to a variety of different demographics.

The classic French artist beret's aesthetic dates back to the 1500s, when it was the hat of choice for Europe's poorest class due to cheap manufacturing. Rembrandt's paintings depicted himself and farmers wearing the flat topped chapeau. In the mid 1800s, Basque military figures in Spain wore discintive red berets during the Second Carlist War. Later during WWII, French resistance fighters donned the beret. The Special Forces division of the U.S. Army has long been indentified as they "Green Berets," too.

An extremely similar style of the very same hats worn by army fighters, dictators and political leaders was also chosen by the 1960's Black Panther group in America, and of course, the iconic Beatnik generation — both signifying resistance, rebellion and a strong dose of being politically outspoken.

"The beret has a split identity in popular culture," fashion historian Kimberly Chrisman Campbell tells L'Officiel. "On one hand, it's an iconic chapeau associated with French artists, philosophers, and schoolgirls, a symbol as iconic as a baguette or the Eiffel Tower. But it also has a tough, menacing side, as a part of military uniform worn by the Green Berets and the French Navy, among others, that has been co-opted by some pretty brutal dictators, such as Saddam Hussein and Robert Mugabe, whose beret inspired a street fashion trend in Zimbabwe."

That may just be the most interesting thing to note about fashion's favorite hat. Unlike many other fashion pieces that come back into style in a major way during certain times, the beret has long had a dichotomy between creative freedom and war, quite unlike any other garment or accessory. Artists, actors, poets and writers have long been associated with the hat, while it's also clear that political leaders and dictators from around the world have embraced the style. 

"I think that's why, since the 1960s, the beret has been adopted by rebels and rabble rousers," Campbell explains. "It combines classic cool with a dangerous edge." 

In a world where political activism is more visible than ever before, the beret may be fashion's antidote to complictness.

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