History of the Beret

What if I told you the origin of the beret wasn’t entirely French?

Sheena Pennell Jul 1, 2024 - 5 min read

History of the Beret Primary Image

Green beret, United States Army Special Forces, circa 1962, National Museum of American History. Photos courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Whether you picture mimes, the movie An American in Paris, artists, poets, or military uniforms, the beret has been inextricably linked to France and French culture for over a hundred years, thanks to film and media from the 1940s onward.

However, archaeologists have found similar caps dating as far back as ancient Greece and the Middle Ages. Flat caps made from fulled or felted wool have been documented by historians throughout Europe, from Italy to Denmark. But the word “beret” wasn’t used to describe them until 1835. Despite these hats’ popularity with peasant classes all over Europe from the 1300s onward, they were simply called “felt hats” or something similar.

Rembrandt Self-Portrait with Velvet Beret and Furred Mantle, 1634.

The beret-style hat has its roots in the Basque region straddling the French-Spanish border. Historically, Basque berets were knit of thick wool, which felted in the rain to form a more closely fitting cap. Felted wool was imminently practical because it was warm but also water resistant. All classes of people used it, but particularly the peasantry because the material was cheap and could be produced at home. In the city of Béarn, which claims to be the home of the beret, boys were considered to be men at age 10 and were given their first beret at that age.

The eighteenth and nineteenth centuries in Europe were tumultuous. Tomás de Zumalacárregui, a Spanish military leader in the First and Second Carlist Wars, was known for wearing a red beret during the Second Carlist War (1846–1849)—forever linking it to the military and revolution. In December of 1888, nearly forty years later, France formed the Chasseurs Alpins, an elite infantry force designed for fighting in the mountains. Their uniform included a light blue beret.

This display at the Tromsø War Museum shows what a captain in the Chasseurs Alpins would wear in the 1960s, including the iconic beret.

The beret rose in popularity as Europe hurtled into World War I and World War II. The advent of tanks, telephones, and radio communication meant the beret had a new and unforeseen advantage: It could be worn with headphones. First associated with tank regiments, the beret was worn by many elite or specialized units, such as the Marines and Green Berets.

The early twentieth century saw another important development: film. Newsreels from Europe sparked in many Americans a yearning for European style and culture. The interwar years saw the beret appear in the wardrobes of Ernest Hemingway and Lauren Bacall, as well as among singers and artists. Just as cotton “cottagecore,” “prairie,” or “vintage” dresses are considered chic today, early-twentieth-century artists took this symbol of the peasantry and made it a form of rebellion against fashion and expectation.

Girl Scouts wearing berets as part of their uniform when greeting First Lady Betty Ford in 1976.

At the same time, the world was changing. Briefly in the 1950s, the beret fell out of fashion before coming back with a vengeance in the 1960s when it was adopted by groups such as the Black Panthers, Cuban revolutionaries, and Mexican and Mexican-American protest organizations including the Brown Berets and the Young Lords Party.

Between 1970 and 2015, the beret’s symbolic history seems to have been forgotten. However, this iconic hat style hasn’t disappeared. For Beyoncé’s 2016 Super Bowl halftime show performance of her song “Formation,” she and her dancers dressed in berets, bodysuits, and faux-leather jackets that evoked the Black Panthers’ uniform; the song references Beyoncé’s southern, African-American, and Creole roots. Through her Creole ancestors, Beyoncé is a descendant of the Viscounts of Béarn, where the beret originated. And, like the cap, the story comes full circle from its European roots to a prominent spot in twenty-first-century American culture.


Sheena Pennell is the author, editor, knitwear designer, and amateur historian behind KnotMagick Studios. She has studied art conservation with an emphasis on textiles in Florence, Italy. The Eleonora Project is based on a portion of her thesis, which focused on the challenges facing conservators working with burial garments.