The head­gear adopted by Pyre­nean shep­herds is now a fashion item, but it re­mains in­deli­bly French, in the hearts and minds of peo­ple across the globe, says Heidi Fuller-love

France - - Contents -

See how a Pyre­nean shep­herd’s hat be­came an iconic fashion ac­ces­sory.

If fashion moguls like to think they in­vented the world’s most ver­sa­tile head­gear, pop­u­lar French leg­end has it that Noah dis­cov­ered the beret. Ac­cord­ing to myth, he was clean­ing the Ark and dis­cov­ered a mesh of wool that had been trod­den to felt by a hun­dred hooves. “Why not use this dense, im­per­me­able ma­te­rial to cre­ate pro­tec­tive head­gear for when it rains for 40 days and 40 nights?” he thought. Et voilà: the beret, de­rived from the Latin bir­re­tum (mean­ing ‘a cap’), was born.

His­to­ri­ans would dis­pute this bi­b­li­cal fa­ble, but they would not deny that the beret goes back a long way: the an­cient Greeks wore round, flat hats that looked sim­i­lar and even the Ro­mans had a flat cap called a beretino.

The first berets in France were worn by béar­nais shep­herds in the Mid­dle Ages. These canny Pyre­nean moun­tain dwellers dis­cov­ered that wool be­comes wa­ter-re­sis­tant when left out in all weath­ers. Soon, all over the MidiPyrénées, shep­herds were knit­ting them­selves hats dur­ing the long win­ter veil­lées when fire flick­ered in the chim­ney and the wolves howled out­side.

The beret gained vi­tal im­por­tance in ru­ral Pyre­nean so­ci­ety and, like most things in such com­mu­ni­ties, took on a host of other func­tions: berets were used as a place to hide money or a bag for gath­er­ing fruit, and the ‘stem’ in the mid­dle was said to ward off the devil.

Even the way the head­gear was worn be­came a lan­guage in it­self. Ac­cord­ing to Jean Oli­bet, cre­ator of the world’s first beret mu­seum, a cap that is pushed back

off the fore­head “brands the wearer as a swag­gerer”, while worn low over one eye “re­veals a de­vi­ous char­ac­ter”.

Due to its rain­proof qual­i­ties, the Pays Basque’s pelota play­ers adopted the beret dur­ing the 19th cen­tury and it soon be­came a sym­bol of the game. The berets were spot­ted by tourists, who wanted to take them home as sou­venirs. Canny shop­keep­ers bought the hats from over the bor­der in Béarn, then switched la­bels with the name of their vil­lages; which is how the beret, which orig­i­nated in Béarn, be­came as­so­ci­ated with Basque cul­ture in the hearts and homes of sight­seers.

With the wide­spread pop­u­lar­ity of pelota, the beret’s ap­peal spread well beyond the Pyre­nean moun­tains. It was adopted as part of the of­fi­cial uni­form of French tank reg­i­ments in Au­gust 1919 and fea­tured in clas­sic French films in­clud­ing Quai des Brumes and La Grande Il­lu­sion. Dur­ing World War II, members of the French Re­sis­tance wore the beret and it be­came a sym­bol of courage and pa­tri­o­tism.

Up to the 1970s, 30 fac­to­ries in France were mak­ing berets, and a decade later pro­duc­tion still stood at sev­eral mil­lion a year.

To­day, even though armies across the world kit out their elite com­man­dos in dif­fer­ent-coloured berets, cheaper im­i­ta­tions from China, In­dia and the Czech Repub­lic have flooded the mar­ket, and pro­duc­tion is in de­cline. You are more likely to see the iconic head­gear on the cat­walk of a fashion show, than on the heads of French vil­lagers.

Only three beret man­u­fac­tur­ers re­main in France, all in Béarn: Laul­hère, which bought out the old­est producer, Blancq-oli­bet, in 2014; and two ar­ti­san mak­ers: Bone­te­ria Au­loronesa and Le Béret Français. The first two are based in the town of Oloron-sainte-marie and the third in the vil­lage of Laàs. In an at­tempt to buck the trend and bring berets back into fashion, Laul­hère has opened a bou­tique on the fash­ion­able Rue du Faubourg Saint-hon­oré in Paris. Worn by tat­tooed sol­diers and bo­hemian artists; donned by fig­ures as di­verse as Che Gue­vara, Madonna and Mon­ica Lewin­sky, France’s most fa­mous cou­vre-chef never seems to go out of style. “The beret is part of our her­itage,” says Oli­bet. “Come what may, the his­tory of the beret and that of the French na­tion will al­ways be in­ex­tri­ca­bly en­twined.”

A beret-wear­ing Mar­lene Di­et­rich in a pub­lic­ity shot for the 1941 film Man­power

ABOVE: Tra­di­tional beret-mak­ing equip­ment in the Musée du Béret

ABOVE: Pop star Madonna has al­ways been a big fan of the beret

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