why the beret is a hat for our times

French tradition, artistic integrity, military conflict. The beret can mean many things. But in 2017, it’s a symbol of revolution.

by Alice Newell-Hanson
29 March 2017, 2:30pm

Dior fall/winter 17. Photography Mitchell Sams.

This story appeared in the March issue of VICE magazine. Click HERE to subscribe

In March 2013, Jack Nicholson was photographed in Paris wearing a navy-blue beret embroidered with the New York Yankees logo. The official MLB merchandise store does not sell a Yankees beret, which suggests that Nicholson either created or commissioned the piece himself, perhaps specially for his trip to France (on US soil, he favors a more traditional Yankees baseball cap). Nicholson is a fan of both the Yankees and berets. In 1975, he wore a black beret to the Oscars. He was nominated for Best Actor for his role in Chinatown and brought Anjelica Huston as his date. The ceremony took place 22 days before the end of the Vietnam War, in which berets were prominently worn by the US Special Forces team, also known as the Green Berets.

In other words, the beret is a felted mass of contradictions. It can symbolize French simplicity or an auteur's complexity, military authority, or revolutionary ideology. And recently, it has become unavoidable. In January, Katy Perry hugged Gloria Steinem at the Women's March in Washington while wearing a plush yellow Moschino version topped with a smiley face. Two days later, Korean rap sensation G-Dragon arrived at Chanel's haute couture show in a sequined Karl Lagerfeld number that recalled Bianca Jagger's memorable red paillette beret from her Studio 54 days. Though it is perhaps the simplest hat possible—brimless and traditionally made from hand-matted wool—the beret has strangely diverse connotations.

A little history: The earliest recorded berets were worn by ancient Greeks on the island of Crete around 1500 BC, and the hat has remained a wardrobe staple in parts of Europe ever since, particularly in the Pyrenees, where shepherds have worn Basque-style berets for centuries. The beret's military associations go back to the Chasseurs Alpins, a French mountain corps that conscripted the hat as part of its uniform in 1889. Since then, military units across the world have adopted it, usually with detailed color codes. With no brim to block a soldier's sight line, the beret has become standard-issue military headwear across the world.

Prada men's fall/winter 17. Photography Mitchell Sams.

Ironically, though, the beret's most famous wearers have almost all been revolutionaries. In 1960, photographer Alberto Korda captured Che Guevara in Guerrillero Heroico, his most iconic portrait, wearing a black beret embroidered with a commander's star. The image, which continues to decorate college dorm rooms to this day, cemented the beret as a symbol of resistance. The Black Panther Party also harnessed the hat's power in the 1960s, claiming it as part of their much-photographed de facto uniform: black beret, black pants, black leather jacket. The Young Lords Party in New York wore purple berets, and the radical Chicano Brown Berets took their name from their signature caps.

And when Beyoncé played the Super Bowl halftime show in 2016, her backing dancers wore black berets in homage to the Panthers, their arms raised in a black power salute. Rudy Giuliani called the performance an "attack" on the police during an appearance on FOX News, and departments throughout the country discussed protesting; other viewers praised the icon's show of solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement.

With all of this history in mind, it makes sense that the beret is back in style — on the runways (see Gucci's recent shows), on city streets, on Instagram. Faced with continuing police violence in the US and the rise of a new right wing, we're developing a new aesthetic for a new revolution, cobbling together references from our past like only our young, digital generation could.

Related: The uncomfortable history of hoodies


Text Alice Newell-Hanson

Alice Newell-Hanson