The Devil’s Own Cowpat

The Curse of the Beret

As a hat, the beret is functionally useless. Why did it become such a fashion statement at home and abroad – and why has it proved more destructive than WMDs to the United States?

In many ways, the beret is France’s most enduring motif. For years, even centuries, it was as much a part of the national uniform as the smouldering butt-end dangling from the lower lip or the condescending sneer. Stone carvings from the Middle Ages show French beret-wearers. Maurice Chevalier sported a Basque beret while cycling through Montparnasse burbling, “The Song of Paree”. Jean-Paul Sartre topped off his “dirty thinker” look of Mac, NHS specs and squint with a larger, droopier Hoquy beret. Infamous mime, Marcel Marceau, never pretends he is trapped inside a glass box without his sprigged All-Seasons beret and boat-necked stripy jumper. 

In 1939, there were over three hundred factories churning out thirty million berets every year in France, the birthplace of this devil’s own cowpat of a hat. Most of them were based around Pau in the Béarn region which recently fixed beret emblems on to its lampposts and bus stops to rub in the message. The beret originated amongst Basque farmers and fishermen either side of the nearby Pyrenees. The name itself is derived from a Latin word, “birretum”, which means ‘cap’. 

Deconstructed, the beret is not a cap. It is hardly a hat. It has no brim to keep the sun out of your eyes, and no space between your head and the crown to allow the collection of warm air. Ear protection? Forget it. In the rain, the little shape it has collapses and it seeps down your head, as if someone had cracked an ostrich egg on your skull.

The classic beret, the béret basque, is just a flat, one-piece circle of wool (now more usually wool felt), created by knitting outward from a central three-inch ‘tail’ and then draped over the head. The soft material could be shaped in a variety of ways but was is pushed to one side to the head, giving the wearer a monolobal brachycephalic – or Elephant Man – touch. 

It never mattered that the beret is functionally useless qua hat. The Basques wore it because they were too poor to afford anything else but it really only took off in the mid-1800s onwards, when it was taken up by artists, most famously by long-time French resident Picasso, to make a statement. The statement being: “Look at me. I don’t care what I look like. I don’t care what you think I look like. Look at me more.”

During the 20th Century, the beret became and remains standard issue for anyone with artistic or radical ‘tendencies’ not just in France but around the world. Revolutionaries like Che Guevara and the Black Panthers, jazzmen like Dizzy Gillespie and Sidney Bechet, intellectuals from Camus to Linus Pauling, general-purpose attention cravers from Madonna to Paris Hilton, all of them have been congenital beret-wearers. Simply, anyone you would imagine wears a beret, does. Visit to view a selection designed by this deeply intense actor.

Here’s where the joke comes in. The French don’t wear them anymore. “Though berets may be more common in France than bowler hates are in Britain”, says journalist and France-watcher, Jonathan Fenby, “you could drive from Calais to Cannes without seeing one.” The beret is just too, well, ringard (naff). In 2000, there were only three beret factories left in France, employing one hundred and eighty people and making only a million berets annually with a third of them being bought by the French army. In 2006, there is only one factory remaining and that has to make wool caps and “event headgear” (American –style baseball caps) to stay ahead.

While the French have quietly cured themselves of their beret problem, the nation that has become the world’s largest consumer of France’s tonsorial joke is now the United States. What must make the joke all the more delicious to the French is that the addiction is already kicking in, with the last two presidencies of its great geopolitical rival shaken to their foundations by the simple beret. Monica Lewinsky and Saddam Hussein, anyone?


Great Beret Wearers of History (Foreign)

Pablo Picasso, billionaire artist and communist

Che Guevara, revolutionary and patented T-shirt motif

Benny Hill, sex pest

Madonna, gristly pop singer and Euro wannabe

John Malkovich, intense movie actor

Frank Spencer, John Paul Sartre-lookalike TV cretin

Johnny Rotten, defanged punk musician

Bette Davis, pop-eyed film star

Field Marshall Montgomery, oddball British soldier

Patty Hearst, crazed kidnap victim

Monica Lewinsky, wide-mouthed White House intern

Huey Newton, Black Panther activist

Great Beret Wearers of History (France)

François Mitterrand, French president

Brigitte Bardot, movie star and sexbomb

Olivier Messiaen, atonal composer

Jean Paul Sartre, Frank Spencer-lookalike philosopher

Jean Moulin, genuine Resistance hero

Claude Monet, blind artist

Maurice Chevalier, cheeky cabaret singer 

Gerard Depardieu, stock Frenchman

Jean Cocteau, artist, film-maker and compulsive cottager

Eric Cantona, lugubrious soccer star and kung fu artist

Jacques Tati, horse-faced comic actor

Marcel Marceau, mime ‘artist’

Françoise Sagan, novelist and speed freak.


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