ICONIC STYLE: THE POLITICAL SYMBOLISM OF THE BERET

August 7, 2018

As we began brainstorming our POLITICS issue, a two-month explorative focus into the historical, theoretical, and ideological ties between politics and style, I couldn’t shake the sartorial and political significance of the beret. Superficially, it’s the French “cool girl” novelty - a booster of Instagram likes endorsed by the likes of Kaia Gerber, Solange, Rihanna, and Bella Hadid. Yet, the beret is deeply soaked in political symbolism with a long and transcendent history. The classic hat’s duplicity mirrors our cultural landscape - our need to stay “on trend” while also holding onto some assemblance of political consciousness. The beret’s origins and importance as a French fashion accessory is relatively well known (see here for our take on that subject), but how did the beret become such a politically charged symbol?

 

The hat itself - long before being christened the “beret” - traces back to Bronze Age Italy and Denmark (think 3200-600 B.C.) where skant remains of disk-like woolen hats were found in tombs. Our modern idea of the classic beret originated in Europe in the 1500s, where (due to affordability) felt berets became a mainstay in artist and farming communities (the poorest faction of society). Though still a symbol of the impoverished class, by the 1800s berets started to get political. Blood red berets defined the Carlists during Spain’s Second Carlist War thanks to leader Tomas Zumalacarrequi. In France, the French Chasseurs Alpins signified their status as French Army elite with light blue berets. This redefinition of the beret as a militant headpiece carried on through the eras of World War I and II - becoming staples in military uniforms for its utilitarianism and affordability with Britain’s Royal Tank Corps and the U.S. Army’s Special Forces (better known as simply “The Green Berets”) as the armies of China, Canada, Sri Lanka, and others followed suit.

 

"The beret has a split identity in popular culture," fashion historian Kimberly Chrisman Campbell told L'Officiel late last year. "On one hand, it's an iconic chapeau associated with French artists, philosophers, and schoolgirls, a symbol as iconic as a baguette or the Eiffel Tower. But it also has a tough, menacing side, as a part of military uniform worn by the Green Berets and the French Navy, among others, that has been co-opted by some pretty brutal dictators, such as Saddam Hussein and Robert Mugabe, whose beret inspired a street fashion trend in Zimbabwe."

 

During the 1960s and 70s, as the Civil Rights, Anti-War, and feminist movements swept the globe, revolutionaries on several fronts capitalised on the militant energy the beret adopted decades before, to galvanize their political platforms and coalesce the members of their movements. Che Guevara and Fidel Castro chose black berets as their hats of choice when taking over Cuba (see this referenced in Chanel’s cruise 2016 runway in Havana - how ironic). A group fighting to restore formerly Mexican-occupied lands wore and went by the Brown Berets. The Young Lords Party, a Latinx self-defense organization based in Spanish Harlem and Chicago, donned black berets as they mobilised. The anti-crime citizen patrol group, the Guardian Angels, took to the subways and city streets in red bombers, white graphic tees, and bold red berets.

 

Most notably, however, is Oakland, California’s Black Panther Party for Self-Defence; founded by Huey Newton and Bobby Seale, with leaders Kathleen Neal Cleaver, Elaine Brown, Assata and Afeni Shakur, and Angela Davis, they used their Ten Point Objective Plan which included education, employment, land, freedom, empowerment, and housing to facilitate independence and power for black communities neglected and hurt by the systems in place. The Party’s now signature all-black leather ensembles gave members a form of unification and solidarity. The black berets were worn as the antithesis to the U.S. military’s green berets and symbolized the Party’s role on the frontlines of change. Due to the danger of their work, the Party’s black sunglasses served as a protective barrier of anonymity to ensure that they nor their families would be targeted and harmed.  “The power was in the way that they turned these everyday items into a paramilitary uniform of sorts. The clothing became a form of embodied radical activism,” explained Dr. Tanisha C. Ford, assistant professor of Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at the University of Massachusetts Amherst to HelloBeautiful.

 

Now, we see the beret’s political influence throughout fashion, culture, and society serving as a subliminal message of resistance (or at least the aesthetic of it) as much as a symbol of sartorial “cool.” Take Beyoncé’s most recent Grammy looks, where she wore all black featuring a leather beret by Eugenia Kim, or her Super Bowl 50 halftime performance. Or when Maria Grazia Chiuri sent her models down the runway in black leather berets and crossbody bags emmulating ammo sashes during her fall/winter 2017 show. Or Aurora James’ black leather and leopard “2020 Berets” for Brothers Vellies - which support Planned Parenthood and the Women’s March and became a favorite of Elaine Welteroth’s who wore it to the March For Our Live rally in Washington, D.C. while reporting for ABC.  

 

The beret has morphed from the mark of the destitute, to the stamp of artistic genius, to the signifier of military and political factions, to the epitome of trendy “coolness.” It’s a mark of rebellion - however mainstream or radical - infused with the history to empower the wearer towards political action, and representative of the aesthetics of "outsiders," a look now even coveted by the establishment.

 

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