A beret, a name that comes from a word meaning "cap," is a brimless, loose-fitting hat, usually made of hand-knitted or felted wool. This hat — or caps that were very similar — can be traced back to ancient times, but modern versions are often associated with the Basque region of Europe. To this day, the Basque beret design is considered to be the standard by which all others are compared. This cap is closely associated with military headgear.
As the beret became popular in the 19th century, French hat designers modified the style a bit. In a typical Basque or French beret, a leatherette band is measured against the wearer's head for a proper fit. The wool felt can be dyed in a variety of colors, from the traditional black to burgundy to white. The hat itself is a loose fitting oblong cap. The beret wearer usually sweeps the cap to one side, creating a chic, informal line.
The beret became a trademark of sorts for the Bohemian French culture of the mid-20th century. French artists, poets and other free-spirited denizens adopted it as a symbol of counter-cultural identification. During the 1960s, the hat enjoyed a resurgence as a fashion item, featured prominently as Faye Dunaway's hat of choice in the film Bonnie and Clyde.
The association of the beret with military uniforms has a very long history, but modern use can be traced to the Carlist Wars in Spain in the 1830s and Chasseurs Alpins of the French arm in the 1880s. The British Army commissioned a modified beret for use by specialized forces in 1918. Even guerrilla fighters such as Che Guevara adopted the beret as their headgear of choice.
The largest beret customers in the world today are most likely military organizations. The United States Army still has an elite Special Forces unit known worldwide as the Green Berets. Indeed, many international militaries use different beret colors to distinguish themselves on the battlefield.
A decision by the US Army in the 1990s to replace the standard issue "ballcap" head covers with a form of beret initially met with some resistance, but it has now become an accepted practice. According to the official Army training manual, each recruit should spend an average of two days preparing his or her beret for proper military duty. This means using a cigarette lighter to burn off extraneous wool fibers, a disposable razor to shave off all "fuzzies" and a warm water soak to customize the fit of the beret.