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The History of Berets

Long seen as a symbol of Parisian style, the history of the beret is actually quite complex. Berets are surprisingly old accessories — they were worn all the way back in the 14th and 15th centuries and were originally referred to simply as “felt hats.” They were worn by the poorest of farmers and also by artists. (In fact, berets are featured in several famous artist’s self-portraits, including those by Van Gogh and Rembrandt!). Because of their practical construction and ability to look uniform, berets were also adopted by many different groups, including the French and Spanish militaries in the 1800s and later, by the United States Army Special Forces (SF), more commonly known as the "Green Berets." Berets were also worn by the Black Panthers in the 1960s and 1970s. But they aren’t just associated with farmers, artists, the military, and political groups — in the 1960s, the beret was often seen as a feminist accessory because Mary Tyler Moore wore one on The Mary Tyler Moore Show, which was one of the first TV programs to feature an independent, career-minded woman and is considered an important feminist moment in media. There are many styles of berets, but today, we are most familiar with the French beret, also known as the Basque-style beret. It first entered commercial production in a town called Oloron-Sainte-Marie (located between Southern France and Northern Spain) in the 19th century. Interestingly, it was meant to be worn with the brim folded underneath, but was – and still is – often worn “incorrectly.” By 1928, France, Spain, and Italy were all producing millions of berets, and the hat lost its long-standing association with the working class and instead became associated with fashion and Hollywood because it was a favorite of starlets like Jean Harlow, Greta Garbo, and Marlene Dietrich. Since then, the beret has remained a fashionable accessory that carries with it a surprisingly complex history.

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