The beret has to be the most versitle head gear in history. What
other head gear has been wore by little boys and girls, elite soldiers,
scruffy Cuban revolutionariers, boy and girl scouts, shepards, a
president's nemesis, and many others more. It is esentially a visorless
cap--but the simple design can be worn for a multiplicity of different
The beret is a soft round visorless cap. It has a round flat crown of varying widths. Made of felt, wool or other fabric. Forms of the beret have been found since Ancient Times. It can be worn in many
different ways for a wide variety of looks from adventurous to
I am not sure when the beret was first worn, but there are reports that it was worn in ancient times. It appears to have become very important in the Renaissance. HBC has note a variety of reports, but documentation is sketchy:
The 5th century BC: Reports suggest that a beret-type head gear was worn by the ancient Greeks. One report suggests that the cap is directly descended from the Greek "pilos", the black felt skullcap worn by sailors and the like.
The 1st century AD: Reports suggest that the Romans picked up the beret from the Greeks. Just when they began wearing it and how common it was, HBC can not determine at this time. The Romans, who called it a beretino, were the ones who actually invented the true beret. The ancient Romans even applied the color laws to the beret-- only aristocrats could wear a white one.
The 3rd century: Reports suggest that the beret was worn by Roman colonies in Spain. Again the actual timeline and prevalence is unknown. This may be how the beret became established in the Basque country, but HBC has few details, but we known that the Basque people adopted it for their own. It is properly called Beret Basque, ("boina" in Spanish and Basque). Though France loves a good beret, it is the Basque and Spanish who truly pioneered its popularity and usage. When and how the beret then passed o France we do not fully understand.
The 13th century: One source claims that the first appearance of a beret in the historical record was in a 13th century fresco.
The 14th Century: In Italy the beret was worn during the 14th to the late 17th Century as was considered very fashionable. In Florence alone, the Grand Duke Cosimo I insisted that his pages wear red berets in summer and blue berets in the winter.
The 16th Century: One HBC contributor tells me that he has seen an image of a Swede from the 16th century wearing what looked like a beret.
The 1900s: The beret was widely worn in France. Just when the beret bgan to be worn and what was the inspiration is unknown.
The 1920s: The bere became very popular headwear for girls in America.
The 1930s: The beret in the 1930s was still widely worn by men and boys in France and Spain (especially the Basque country). Some younger American boys wore it, but it was little worn by boys outsie France and Spain. In an important development, the beret was aopted as part of the uniform by the British tank force.
The 1940s: Several military units, especially elite formations like paratroopers adopted the beret.
The 1950s: Scout units outside of France began adopting new headgear to replace the rather unparactical lemon-squuzer hat. Many turned to the beret--probably as a result of the prestigiuos cachet flowing from their use in military uniforms. Interestingly, while Scouts began adopting the beret, French boys durung the 1950s stoppe wearing them. By the end of the decade, it was wear to see a French boy other than a Scout wearing a beret.
The beret is so old no one can be sure of its basic history, but it appears to have originate in aincient Greece and Rome.
The beret was known originally in Greece as the "pilos" 2,500 years ago, it was adopted by the Romans, who eventually came to call it a "beretino". When they first borrowed it they called it "pilus" then "pileolus". The skullcap is also a direct descendant of these early berets. The Romans held the beret in high regard. Men, women and
children wore them everywhere. Romans took the beret into the entire empire, of course. It was always known as a Greco-Roman cap. Why
it was chosen as a symbol of the fighting underdog
remains a mystery.
HBC has limited information on the modern beret. It seems most associated with France, "beret" being a French word. Yet, like many words, beret actually comes from a Latin word, in this case "birretum", which means "cap". And basically, "cap" is exactly what a beret is. A floppy cap.
HBC has little information on beret types. Presumably there are different types worn in France an Spain, but HBC has virtually no information on this.
The Scotch blur bonnet of the highlanders is one of the most famous berets. It is a blue woolen beret cap with top projecti Queen Victoria and her Prince Consort made the Aberdeenshire, Scotland castle of Balmoral their summer residence. The Queen dressed the prince in the Highland costume and created a fashion. Some purists insist that balmorals are not "berets" but "civilians" call a Scottish blue bonnet a beret. These were broader in size than the later style
Balmorals, and although other colors were probably worn, the blue was so common that Scots were sometimes call "blue caps." There's even a tune in the Skene MS (C. 1615-20) called "Blew Cappe". The words describe a woman and all her suitors from various nations, but
she'll have none of them and says: "Gif ever I have a man -Blew cap for
The Tam O'Shanter is esentiallu a floppy beret, but worn with a pom
on top. Like the beret, it has been worn by a wide variety of individuals from little girls to British soldiers.
Gender conventions concerning berets have varied over time and from country to country. Before World War I, as best we can tell, the beret was primary a boy's garment. This began to change after the War in the 1920s and 30s. After World War II, the beret became more of a girl's gsrment, except when worn with uniforms. Here the trends, especiaslly the time line, varied from country to country. This is a little difficult to assess becuse most school portraits are posed without headwear. And dated class portraits care one of the best ways of following piopulsr fashion. A few available French school portraits show the boys wearing berets, but not the girls. A good example is the French boys in a Casablanca school in 1929. In America the beret was considered more girl's headwear than a boy's garment, although younger boys also wore them when dressing up. There were also differences over time. We see some private schools adopting the beret as part of girl's school uniform, this became especially prevalent after World War II when fewer boys were wearing berets. Berets were also adopted by some youth groups, but more by boys' groups than girls.
The beret has to be the most versital headwar ever. Children wore it for many diverse purposes and events. But it was nit just worn by children. It has been worn by little boys and girls as well as old men.
But even more versital than who wore it was the special conventions or groups whivh used the beret as part of a unifirm. We note boy and girl scouts wearing berets along with such diverse groups as shepards, soldiers including Green Berets and paratroopers, Cuban revolutionaries, and many more. Few headwear styles have proven acceptable to such diverse groups from free thinking Bohemians and very individualist artists to regimented soldiers. And along with this diversity were not only individual boys, but schools and youth groups. WE note boys wearing berets casually for play. Others boys used the beret when dressing up.
Berets are made out of a wool flannel material
We don't have a lot of informastion on beret colors at this time. Acquiring unformation is complicated because they were mostly worn before color photography became common.
The berets worn by adults have come in a variety of colors, often with
very strong images. American Special Forces are well known for their
green berets as are the paratroopers for maroon berets. Artists, anarchists,
and Cuban revolutionaries appear partial to black berets. The Guardian
Angels wear red berets. A California group promoting Chicano interests
wear brown berets.
Boys have often worn a variety of different colored berets:
Black: French boys generally wore black berets, but after World War II (1939-35), the beret passed out of fashion with boys. British Scouts also chose a black beret.
Red: Many American Scout groups wore red berets in the 1970s-80s, but the beret was less commonly worn in the 1990s.
White: Little American boys in the 1920s and 30s sometimes wore berets with their dressy outfits. The berets were often white or cream color. Only youngerboys wore berets and they were not very common, bur most of the ones we have noted were white. Berets for girls on the other hand were more common, but we are less sure about the colors. We also note German boys wearing white berets.
I have little information on what color of berets were worn by boys
in the late 19th and early 20th Century in England and American.
French boys were of course the most commonly associated with berets. The beret was also been worn in Belgium where French styles are so important. The beret was also commonly worn in Spain, especially in the Basque country. Berets in these countries were a male garment, worn by both men and boys. The beret appeare in many other countries in the 20th century. It was primarily considere a French garment. First as a younger boys' cap and then as a popular style for girls. After it was worn by military units in World War II era, it was adopted by many Scout groups.
I am not sure about the conventions for wearing berets. I believe that generally speaking that is was basically an informal style of headgear. They were commonly worn in France with smocks to school. Some English and American boys also wore smocks, but basically around the home, rarely to school. Some of these boys would wear berets. When the boys dressed up theu would wear a formal hat, often a
sailor hat. The only instance I know of as wearing a beret as formal headgear
was its use by American boys in the 1920s-30s and the early 1940s. Some younger boys would wear berets, usually light-colored berets, worn
with their best suits--often short pants suits.
Berets are worn in several different ways. We see photographs of French and other boys wearing berets differently, even boys in the same photograph. We are unsure why there are so many differences. Apparently there was no accepted convention as to how the beret should be worn. A good example is the French boys in a Casablanca school in 1929. The way the beret is worn can give radically different images to the boys wearing it.
American boys often wore their berets pulled down. This is also the
way American girls wore it during the 1920s-30s.
French boys often wore their bere ts like a pan cake ion top of their heads.
Wearing a beret at an angle gives a rather rakish look, which is why
the military wears it like that. Boys do not generally wear it like
this, with the exception of the Scouts which often do.
One HBC reader reports that the beret became the symbol of "the fighting underdog". But is not sure why. HBC has no more information about this.
Kilgour, Ruth. Pageant of Hats Ancient and Modern: Provides an interesting history of headwear. It is a lovely book, but very old, not always easy to find.
Mather, Geoffrey. "Capped for England" BBC Radio 4, 2001.
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Created: 2:55 AM 8/2/2008
Last edited: 3:34 PM 7/20/2010