The Revolutionary Return of the Beret
The Revolutionary Return of the Beret
- Words Jeff Ihaza
- Date January 05, 2018
The past year of political high drama has raised the stakes on being even casually informed. New scandals and disasters unfold daily, and it can feel like the only responsible thing a person can do is stay glued to the news. This heightened level of public engagement has turned us all into fake experts in one way or another. Twitter threads abound with exaggerated or distorted information about world events; Donald Trump’s name can find itself in just about any conversation, and we’re more inclined than ever to discuss the implications of new legislation with a stranger, if only to try and confirm the reality we confoundingly exist in. For all of this newfound intellectualism, a sartorial trend has reemerged this winter that perfectly articulates our present situation: the beret.
The floppy caps recently adorned by everyone from Rihanna to Bella Hadid have an air of sophistication thanks to an association with chic artists and thinkers of the early twentieth century. But despite the beret’s connection to high brow intellectuals, the garment has much more humble origins. In fact, the hat we presently know is most closely related to the boina, a fifteenth century garment introduced by shepherds in the Basque region of Spain and France. Depending on which side of the Pyrenees they lived on, shepherds wore either white, red or blue boinas, typically made of felt. The hat’s popularity spread among rural laborers around the world thanks to its simplistic construction and utility, before eventually getting adopted by chic nobility. By the 1920’s the beret—specifically the black beret—had become a fashion staple among French intellectuals and creatives. Picasso wore a Beret, as did Hemingway during his infamous stint in Paris.
The beret also became part of a number of military uniforms, most famously the Green Berets of the U.S. army, which was formed during the Korean War and are named for their distinctive headgear. Around the same time—somewhat contradictory considering the affiliation with the U.S. Army—the beret became synonymous with revolutionary movements around the world. In Latin America, images of the Communist leader Ernesto “Che” Guevara sporting a beret became an ubiquitous symbol of leftist revolutions. Brown berets, a pro Chicano organization founded in the 1960’s, adopted the militant uniform of the Black Panthers, who also sported berets, in their fight for farm worker rights and educational reform. Beyoncé, at the 2016 Super Bowl, was flanked by dancers wearing berets, a reference to the Black Panthers, in a public protest of police brutality. Beyoncé’s wardrobe choice, of course, angered conservatives to no end.
The political implications of the beret are likely not on the front of anyone’s mind when they partake in the trend today, but as with any sartorial movement, the philosophical considerations are unconscious. When shoppers pluck berets off of department store racks, they adopt a look that’s engrained in the public imagination, one associated with artists and revolutionaries. In today's climate, it seems those are desirable aesthetics. Gosha Rubchinskiy’s Fall/Winter 2017 collection features a wool beret made in collaboration with the milliner Stephen Jones called the “military beret.” Noah, the quietly ascendant menswear label from Brendon Babenzien, released an adjustable beret complete with a rose pin—a symbol historically used by socialist movements. Women’s lines have similarly taken note. There’s the “Basque Femme Beret” from New York brand Fivestory, a plush beret from Calvin Klein, and countless more, all inspired by the style of Parisian artists, leftist revolutionaries, and American beat poets.
There has been a renewed fascination with utilitarian looks in recent years, as workwear continues to fascinate the fashion industry, and as repurposed military gear—from combat boots to fatigues—continue to dominate both men's and women’s runways. The beret is a simple and subtle hat perfect for winter months in its unassuming nature alone. But, of course, politics have always affected our sartorial sensibilities, and the rise of far right rhetoric around the world appears to have proffered our clothing with a new sense of urgency. Beyond adopting the styles of revolutionaries of the past, the fashion world has suddenly made responding to the widespread proliferation of hate a primary concern. Whether it be in the form of T-shirts, like Opening Ceremony’s “Action Capsule” and Dior’s feminist shirt collection, or in the decision to buck stifling gender norms, as iconic fashion houses like Gucci have with recent presentations, our clothes are innately political, and the mood of right now appears to be revolution.
And so the beret, a simple cap that goes with almost anything, has come to define the current moment. The ambient consternation of a crumbling political system, widening inequality, not to mention environmental collapse, makes it harder than ever to be a passive participant in society. In the U.S., Donald Trump’s continued campaign of political upheaval is itself a looming threat––of nuclear war, of a law that suddenly affects your friends or family due to their faith, of open-faced white supremacy. The clothes we wear are reflections of the world we occupy, and it’s no surprise that as our politics becomes more militant, so too would our clothing. The beret’s popularity outside of formalized military circles represents our growing role in changing political times. Revolutions, after all, are made up of everyday people.
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