Why Do French People Wear Berets?

When we think of the stereotypical French person, most people’s minds go straight to two things: baguettes and berets. The French indeed make excellent bread, but what about the hats? Is there a reason why French people wear berets? 

French people don’t wear berets often but are characterized by it because French infantry Chasseurs Alpins wore them in World War I. In World War II, the beret became a symbol of French Resistance and patriotism. Many French artists also wore berets in self-portraits for practical reasons.

Along with being one of the most famous French icons, berets hold a lengthy and interesting history. This little felt cap has seen a lot from being donned on the heads of artists to soldiers to revolutionaries. Keep reading to learn more about their past and why they became famous anyway.

Women wearing a red beret in Paris
Olena Kachmar@123rf.com

Do French People Actually Wear Berets?

First things first, let’s clear this up. If you hop off a plane in France wearing a striped shirt and beret hoping to fit in, you won’t. If anything, you’ll make it painfully obvious that you are a tourist. 

Not to break your illusion of Paris, but you’ll be hard-pressed to find a beret-wearing artist painting by the Seine while smoking a cigarette. For the most part, this is just a stereotype – though the French are notorious smokers. 

On a stroll through Nice or Marseille, you may pass the odd child or woman wearing a beret, but even that is a deviation from the norm.

While wearing a beret – coupled with Western customs like not greeting your server in a restaurant with a simple “BonSoir” – is a dead giveaway that you’re a foreigner, this doesn’t mean you won’t find them for sale. It is the opposite, actually, but more on that later.

So no, French people don’t wear sport berets – at least not anymore. But if this is the case, where does the stereotype come from?

History of Berets

Before we knew them as the chic French hat that is the pinnacle of fashion, berets had quite a history. They weren’t an indicator of excessive status or wealth in their early years, but they lack.

Origins of the Beret

Way, way back between 400 B.C. and the 1200s, flat, floppy hats that resemble the modern-day beret were a staple of the working class European’s closet. Just like today, these popular hats were constructed from felt.

Felt became the material of choice for warm clothing when shepherds noticed how well-insulated wool kept their sheep. When they decided to use this to fill their shoes for extra warmth, these shepherds soon realized that the moisture from their sweaty feet and the damp ground mixed with the wool’s fibers.

After spending all day walking around, the wool also flattened between their feet and the sole of their shoes. The combination of moisture and compressed wool formed the blueprint for the creation of felt.

Artists Adorned Berets

Maybe artists were fashionably ahead of their time when they hopped on this train in the 14th and 15th centuries. More likely, though, it’s all they could afford.

We all know the starving artist trope. In these times, it rang true. Artists were some of the poorest in Europe at the time, so many sported the hat for practical reasons. Felt was cheap and reliably warm, so it was a reasonable choice.

This still rang true down the historical timeline in the 19th and 20th centuries, with French artists like Monet and Cézanne painting themselves wearing berets in some of their self-portraits. Some claim this was because they were trying to channel Renaissance painters like Rembrant. Though it may hold some truth, the real reason was likely far less romantic than that.

A Political Piece

Military personnel began adding the beret to their uniforms in the 1800s. Iconically, revolutionary leader Tomas Zumalacárregui appeared in a red beret, and it thus became a symbol for succeeding rebels. 

In 1835, the term “beret” finally got coined. Before this, the hat was simply referred to as a “flat hat.” The French name makes sense considering it originates from “bearnaise Berret,” translating to “a flat, woolen cap worn by local peasants.” 

To avoid being associated with peasants, members of the Chasseurs Alpins – the French army’s mountain division – started wearing light blue colored berets. 

It’s not just the French who chose this hat to complete their military attire, though. Flashing forward to World War I in the early 1900s, British soldiers faced the problem that their headwear kept falling off as they moved through the tanks’ hatches. Berets, however, managed to remain in place.

By the 1940s, the beret soon became a popular choice for military uniforms. If provided on chilly days in the damp trenches and low manufacturing cost, the warmth made it a no brainer to mass-produce. While the French wore blue, the British chose black berets, and the United States started wearing green. Eventually, the beret’s popularity would hit other army regimens across the globe.

From Penniless to Posh

It may have been an indicator of poor status, but that didn’t stop French women from turning the beret into a fashionable accessory by the early 1900s. A very popular and affordable French beret choice can be found here on Amazon. It wasn’t just poor artists adorned in them, but singers, stars, and writers as well. The beret became chic. Gone were the days of the felt cap signaling poverty – now it was an indicator of style.

Fighting for French Freedom

As World War II came to fruition and Nazi Germany began to occupy France, this little hat gained some serious symbolism. Taking a page from their country’s military uniform in the First World War, members of the French Resistance sported the flat felt cap to display their courage and allegiance to the country.

The Hat of a Revolution

Not only were 1960s movie stars sending the message that berets were in – radical leaders were too. Communist leader and soon-to-be Cuban prime minister Fidel Castro adopted the hat, as did Che Guevara, a Marxist leader, and Argentinian revolutionary. 

Members of the famous guerilla Black Power organization, the Black Panther Party, also added black berets to their wardrobe as a sly take on the American military’s green hats. 

Fashionable Felt

In the late 90s, the felt cap became more commonplace. Pop culture saw celebrities adopting the hat for what it is instead of emphasizing much of the significance. The beret is still infused with meaning if you’re aware of its history. It holds a unique middle-ground between being a political or fashion statement. These days, you can freely wear a beret in public without worrying that people will think you’re poor or a member of the army. 

Where Does the Stereotype Come From?

Since their days as practical headwear and political pieces, the beret has become more of an everyday accessory with an often forgotten history. With so many people adopting the trend, why is it just considered a French thing?

The reason is because of the French Chasseurs Alpins and their pale blue berets. When the military adopted the felt cap, it became synonymous with French patriotism. 

We can’t forget about those painters either who froze these hats in art history. As France is known for its art and culture, of course, we compound the two.

French Beret Production

As recently as the 1980s, France was still a hub for the beret market. Manufacturers were shipping out millions of these hats annually, but the market has taken a dip with lower-priced, lower-quality berets gaining traction. 

Whether or not it’s an authentic French beret, you’ll still find them for sale in tourist shops. Even most French people don’t wear them, and they remain an icon of the culture. If you find yourself buying a beret in France, take a minute to remember the incredible history of that felt cap.

Final Thoughts

Discover more intriguing facts about berets here. French people don’t wear berets. At least, not as much as we think they do. The beret was immortalized in self-portraits by French painters in the 19th and 20th centuries, though, which is where much of that trope came from.

The felt cap is also a symbol of the French Resistance in World War II and patriotism to the country. While the beret’s history doesn’t solely involve France, the beret will always be a French icon.

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