What is a Beret?

Michael Pollick
Michael Pollick

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.

Woman shopping
Woman shopping

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.

Michael Pollick
Michael Pollick

A regular wiseGEEK contributor, Michael enjoys doing research in order to satisfy his wide-ranging curiosity about a variety of arcane topics. Before becoming a professional writer, Michael worked as an English tutor, poet, voice-over artist, and DJ.

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While the beret is closely associated with "Basque" or "French" culture, it is in fact undeniably of Béarnese origin, Béarn being a province that directly borders with the French Basque Country on its western borders, and with Navarre on its southern flanks by way of the Pyrenees. It was only in the 1st half of the 19th century that berets began to be produced on an industrial level in factories and the first factories were set up in Oloron-Sainte-Marie and Nay. Both towns are located in Béarn.

Beret production seems to have peaked around 1950 in France, which boasted 30 factories, 10 alone of which were located in Oloron-Sainte-Marie. The other factories were located in nearby Nay and Orthez. So at all times beret production was dominated by Béarn in southwest France where it originated. Why then is the beret then most associated with the Basque and in a larger sense, Spain? A quick glance at the labels sown on the inner lining of berets reveals that, most likely for marketing purposes, its manufacturers were depicting symbology connected to Basque-speaking regions such as the coat of arms of the Kingdom of Navarre, names of Basque regions and places as Baigorry, Iholdy, Espelette, or Hoquy.

Furthermore, the Basque region is located on the borders of Béarn, and the Basque immediately adopted this woolen cap as their own. Boinas Elósegui, located in Guipúzcoa province in the Basque Country, is the only beret factory in Spain and is undoubtedly the current market leader in beret production while Laulhère (formerly Béatex) is the only surviving beret factory in Oloron-Sainte-Marie in the heart of Béarn, France, which is the true birthplace of this headgear that has made a profound statement in history.


- The beret was developed in the Béarn, a region in France outside the Basque country. It was Napoleon Bonaparte who added "Basque" to the beret, simply because he saw so many Basques wearing one (and he assumed wrongly that it was of Basque origin).

- The beret is much older than the 19th C. The oldest clear proof of this is found on the Church of Notre Dame in Bellocq (built between 1280 and 1300) where two inbuilt sculptures clearly depict a beret.

- The wool felt beret was not a consequence of fashion designers trying something new; berets have always been knitted from wool and were then felted (and shrunk) in a solution of water and soap. This was a simple measure to densify the material and make it more water resistant and longer lasting.

- There is NO small button on top holding it all together. The little stalk (or 'txortena' in Basque) is the end of the thread that is used to sew the beret together. It is present on all berets; the military berets have it shaved off, but if you feel the center of a military beret, you'll still feel the little knob where the stalk once was.

- It was only in the 2nd quarter of last century that the beret became a fashion item/statement among artists and bohemiens.

- The French regiment of Chasseurs Alpins were the first military unit to adopt a beret to their uniform. This was consequently copied during WW I by the British, who found the beret excellent as a headgear for the (then newly) armourized troops (no peak that could get in the way and black, so oil stains wouldn't show).

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