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A beret is a soft, round, flat-crowned hat, usually of woven, hand-knitted wool, crocheted cotton, wool felt, or acrylic fibre.
Mass production began in 19th century France and Spain, countries with which it remains associated. Berets are worn as part of the uniform of many military and police units worldwide, as well as by other organisations.
The French word béret, from which the English term derives, is based on the Béarnais Berret, a "sort of flat woollen cap, worn by the local peasants". It was first mentioned 1835 in French and in the 19th century in English. This word is related to the English biretta "clerical square cap", borrowed itself from the Spanish birrete of the same etymology. Most specialists think it is a diminutive form biretum of the Low Latin birrum, which means "sort of short cloak with a hood" ["cuculla brevis"], that is from Gaulish birros "short". This word is a close relative to Old Irish berr "short", Welsh byr, Breton berr "short", all thought to be from Proto-Celtic *birro-. The Greek word βίρρος is borrowed from Latin.
Archaeology and art history indicate that headgear similar to the modern beret has been worn since the Bronze Age across Northern Europe and as far south as ancient Crete and Italy, where it was worn by the Minoans, Etruscans and Romans. Such headgear has been popular among the nobility and artists across Europe throughout modern history.
The Basque style beret was the traditional headgear of Navarrian shepherds from the Roncal valleys of the Pyrenees, a mountain range that divides Southern France from northern Spain. The commercial production of Basque-style berets began in the 17th century in the Oloron-Sainte-Marie area of Southern France. Originally a local craft, beret-making became industrialised in the 19th century. The first factory, Beatex-Laulhere, claims production records dating back to 1810. By the 1920s, berets were associated with the working classes in a part of France and Spain and by 1928 more than 20 French factories and some Spanish and Italian factories produced millions of berets.
In Western fashion, men and women have worn the beret since the 1920s as sportswear and later as a fashion statement.
Military berets were first adopted by the French Chasseurs Alpins in 1889. After seeing these during the First World War, British General Hugh Elles proposed the beret for use by the newly formed Royal Tank Regiment, which needed headgear that would stay on while climbing in and out of the small hatches of tanks. They were approved for use by King George V in 1924. The black RTR beret was made famous by Field Marshal Montgomery in the Second World War.
The beret fits snugly around the head, and can be "shaped" in a variety of ways – in the Americas it is commonly worn pushed to one side. In Central and South America, local custom usually prescribes the manner of wearing the beret; there is no universal rule and older gentlemen usually wear it squared on the head, jutting forward. It can be worn by both men and women.
Military uniform berets feature a headband or sweatband attached to the wool, made either from leather, silk or cotton ribbon, sometimes with a drawstring allowing the wearer to tighten the hat. The drawstrings are, according to custom, either tied and cut off/tucked in or else left to dangle. The beret is often adorned with a cap badge, either in cloth or metal. Some berets have a piece of buckram or other stiffener in the position where the badge is intended to be worn.
Berets are not usually lined, but many are partially lined with silk or satin. In military berets, the headband is worn on the outside; military berets often have external sweatbands of leather, pleather or ribbon. The traditional beret (also worn by selected military units, such as the Belgian Chasseurs Ardennais or the French Chasseurs Alpins), usually has the "sweatband" folded inwardly. In such a case, these berets have only an additional inch or so of the same woollen material designed to be folded inwardly.
New beret styles, fully lined and made of "Polar fleece", have become popular. These are unique in that they are machine washable.
NATIONAL TRADITIONS AND VARIANTS
A commemorative beret is the usual trophy in sport or bertso competitions, including Basque rural sports or the Basque portions of the Tour de France.
As uniform headgear
In fashion and culture
The beret is part of the long-standing stereotype of the intellectual, film director, artist, "hipster", poet, bohemian and beatnik. A beret was worn by the artist Rembrandt and the composer Richard Wagner. In the United States and Britain, the middle of the 20th century saw an explosion of berets in women's fashion. In the latter part of the 20th century, the beret was adopted by the Chinese both as a fashion statement and for its political undertones. Berets were also worn by bebop and jazz musicians like Dizzy Gillespie, Gene Krupa, Wardell Gray and Thelonious Monk.
As a revolutionary symbol
Guerrillero Heroico, one of the most famous photographs of the Argentine revolutionary Che Guevara, shows him wearing a black beret with a brass star.
In the 1960s several activist groups adopted the black beret. These include the Provisional Irish Republican Army (PIRA), the ETA guerrillas (who wore black berets over hoods in public appearances), the Black Panther Party of the United States, formed in 1966, and the "Black Beret Cadre" (a similar Black Power organisation in Bermuda). In addition, the Brown Berets were a Chicano organisation formed in 1967. The Young Lords Party, a Latino revolutionary organisation in the United States in the 1960s and 1970s, also wore berets, as did the Guardian Angels unarmed anti-crime citizen patrol units originated by Curtis Sliwa in New York City in the 1970s to patrol the streets and subways to discourage crime (red berets and matching shirts).
Adherents of the Rastafari movement often wear a very large knitted or crocheted black beret with red, gold and green circles atop their dreadlocks. The style is often erroneously called a kufi, after the skullcap known as kufune. They consider the beret and dreadlocks to be symbols of the biblical covenant of God with his chosen people, the "black Israelites".
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