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Iconic: The French Beret

This felt hat is as much a national French symbol as the baguette and the Eiffel Tower. Originally made and worn by shepherds in the French province of Bearn, it continues to cultivate its nonconformist aura, having adorned the heads of farmers, intellectuals, laborers, pastors, Hollywood stars and soldiers. The beret is now cashing in on its French chic thanks to Laulhère, the last historic manufacturer of berets, which is reinventing this piece of headwear as a fashion accessory at its workshops in Oloron-Sainte-Marie, in the Pyrénées-Atlantiques département.

“The cap is fine for laborers, and the top hat is mighty impractical, but the beret is simple, chic and charming!” This line was from the Prévert brothers’ 1932 film It’s in the Bag (L’affaire est dans le sac), which sang the praises of the humble beret. Originally designed for functionality, this shepherd’s cap offers a range of advantages. Both solid and light, it fits comfortably on the head without blowing away at the slightest gust of wind. Thanks to the cabillou — its little top tail — it is also easy to remove. It can be rolled up and put in a pocket, it resists harsh weather conditions, and it protects its wearer from both the sun and the rain.

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Thelonious Monk and Howard McGhee, New York, 1947. © William P. Gottlieb

Adopted by women in the 1920s, the beret accompanied revolutionary movements and changing fashion trends. “The beret can pride itself on having been worn by Che Guevara, Thelonious Monk, Pablo Picasso and Greta Garbo, respectively a soldier, a jazz musician, a painter and a film star”, says Rosabella Forzy, CEO of Laulhère, the last historic company to manufacture this national treasure at its workshops in the beret’s native region of Bearn. However, despite its longevity, the beret never won over Napoleon III, who referred to it as the “Basque beret.”

The beret goes to America

Waves of immigrants from Bearn found a niche in the market upon arriving in the United States in the 19th century. The beret travelled across the Atlantic on imposing cruise liners, and steadily made its way to the Rocky Mountains. In 1848 it then accompanied the American Frontier and the gold rush, which brought it to California. It was still being worn a century later, sported by the founder of cubism Pablo Picasso while he visited New York. The beret is often depicted in the artist’s paintings, including the renowned Marie-Thérèse au béret bleu (1937). And even before Picasso, work by impressionists such as Cézanne, Monet, Pissarro, Renoir and Van Gogh also featured a colorful array of berets.

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Pablo Picasso, Marie-Thérèse au béret bleu, 1937. © Succession Picasso /Artists Rights Society, New York 2015

Thanks to Hemingway and Malraux, who fought for the Spanish Republicans and the International Brigades, the beret became a symbol of defending a political cause, taking sides and even having taste for danger. For the Popular Front and the Maquisards, the beret signified resistance. When worn by Che Guevara, it symbolized revolution. With Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonious Monk and Charles Mingus, it became standard bearer for jazz music. The Black Panthers, dressed in black boots and a beret, have used it as part of their military uniform. But it was American actress Faye Dunaway who transformed it into a glamourous accessory in Arthur Penn’s cult film Bonnie and Clyde (1967), later remade in France starring Brigitte Bardot and Serge Gainsbourg.

Ancestral know-how

Lovers of good taste beware: Avoid the cheap models generally produced in Asia and sold in the streets of Paris to passing tourists. A true French beret requires no fewer than ten stages to make. The first phase consists of knitting the beret using Merino wool. This is followed by the grafting process, in which the wool is closed to form a circular shape. The felting is the third stage, achieved using soapy, warm water to tighten the network of stitches. The artisans then set about dyeing, shaping (to give the beret its final shape, using wooden wedges to gradually increase its diameter), scraping (to add volume to the fibers), shaving (to create a uniform surface and a soft texture), decatizing (a steam treatment used to remove creases and puff up the wool), garnishing (lining the interior with wool, rayon or silk, stitching a leather strap into the hem and sewing on the insignia), and, finally, cleaning and dressing to remove any remaining wool particles with a pair of tweezers.

The world’s couture houses now don’t think twice about purchasing their berets from the source, in the Pyrenees. “A few years ago exports only made up 10% of our activity,” says Rosabella Forzy. “Today they count for 25% of our revenue! We moved into the Chinese and Japanese markets last year, and we’re set to open in the United States this year.” In recognition of its products, Laulhère was also awarded the French “Living Heritage Company” label in 2013, which helped to boost its reputation.

With 45 employees, 200,000 berets made every year and around 2.9 million euros in annual revenue in 2015, this small business has capitalized on luxury à la française to export its know-how. The haute couture sector is its leading client, and 35% of Laulhère’s production is used in design studios and on catwalks. Another 30% is worn by soldiers in the French and other international armies, and the final 35% is sported by members of the public with a penchant for the traditional berets in the company’s Heritage range.

In America the beret can be found at Lord & Taylor in New York, at the Village Hat Shop in Chicago, at Shushan’s in New Orleans, and at the Berkeley Hat Company in Berkeley, California. As for the style, it is preferable to wear it “at the front, in the Basque style, at the back, like Che, or on the side, for that hipster chic.” Prices range from around 25 dollars for a basic woolen version, and up to around 1,500 dollars for a “couture” model crafted in wild silk.

Article published in the October 2016 issue of France-Amérique.

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