According to this pleaty fashion stylist guy I know, ruffles and berets are all over next season's collection. "Berets are making prolific appearances on the runways! Berets are coming back!!"
Usually I can tell if an article of clothing is trendy because when I put it on, the fibers thirstily adhere to my tender skin, which has become raw and chafed from 27 years of frivolous fads. I tried on a beret at Benetton and nothing happened. It sat there on my head like a dinner napkin and I took it off. I am very suspicious.
It might be because I don't have the proper reverence for French culture. This guy from Strasbourg named Manou came to visit me last summer. He didn't wear a beret, but he did wear bright blue docksiders and a pilly pullover sweater. All he did was smoke rolled tobacco, complain about how superficial and unhealthy Americans are, and go "boof!" every time I tried to suggest something to eat or do. I called him Ma-Nerves behind his back.
I have two American friends who wear berets. I don't think it is a coincidence that they are both painters. "Berets are really clean looking," John said with conviction. "They set off your face. There's no rim. I feel like I'm in post-war Paris."
Where did berets come from? Why does everyone just accept them in the world like air? And why does everyone use them to affect Frenchness? What's so French about them? I decided to do a little research and found that my worst fears were truethe beret has survived our reproachful, volatile history like a roach, parasitically clutching to the tops of heads of humans for 2 millenia. And we can hardly blame the French since its je ne sais quois status is relatively recent.
Round, flat, puffy or colorfully hued berets are an ancient archetype of fashion and have long reigned in its fickle realm. The first beret on record was spotted in the streets of ancient Crete, at the beginning of the Middle Minoan period around 1750 B.C. Archaeologists point to a figurine of a woman wearing a huge, bill-shaped beret, striped vertically, worn on the back of the head in that 1983 Culture Club kind of way. I guess it was ahead of its time because it wasn't until the 6th centuries B.C., that the beret made another appearance. The place was Sardinia and this time the forward tilt was hot.
The beret has endured since that time. The Middle Ages saw a beret-related item called a biretta, a round cap that was square on top; Medieval Italians wore berets in a flat hat style until the the Renaissance. After the Thirty Years War, in the 17th Century, berets were a fashion must all over Europe, often worn aslant with soft plumes.
Beret wearing was in decline in the early part of the 1800s, ignored in favor of bonnets and hats with rigid rims. A resurgence in hats worn with a sideways tilt in 1822, however, brought berets back into the picture. Both large and flat berets made a colorful comeback, again loaded with feathers.
Then, in the Romantic period of the 19th Century, a time of heaving breasts, cherubs, and howling weather, a loose elegance became popular, and people wore large, flat berets that sat almost vertically on their heads. By this century, beret enthusiasm spread and divided into ethnic camps: the Scottish tam o' shanter, the soft crowned, red pom-pommed French sailor beret, and the classic, black Basque beret, favoured by Parisian intellectuals and boozed-up Beatniks.
The Basques are considered the oldest ethnic group in Europe and wear their berets with a passion in their homeland nestled in the western Pyrenees Mountains between France and Spain. After looking through a decade's worth of The Journal of Basque Studies, I noticed they wear medium-wide black berets that sit low and flat on their headsbarely a jaunty angle detected. The Basques are fiercely nationalistic. After the infamous bombing of their holy city, Guernica, a civil war and years of intermittent violence, I imagine that, like many other indigent peoples, The Basques feel they have had everything stolen from them, including their cultural icons. I doubt they would appreciate the fact that my stylist friend told me, "The LAST time berets were in style was when Madonna's movie "Body of Evidence" was released, and she wore a long overcoat and beret...but that didn't last long. If she wears one in Evita, well, watch out!"
Advertisements for berets are puzzlingly manic. The website for Tam Beret Selections is scarily effervescent. "We're taking something old and making it new again. The beret has withstood the test of time!" They carry monogrammed berets in six heathery colors, and various styles of beret, including the Montgomery Beret, the Basque Beret, the Tam Beret, and . . . the Skin Bucket.
For beret survivalists, there is even a make-your-own-beret website!
Beret manufacturers and distributors scare me. They seem kind of cultish, like they're linked to a paramilitary group or the Brownies or the drama club at Washington Irving High School famous for their 1987 production of West Side Story. The Vermont Bird Company, which is based in California, has a recurring ad in places like The New Yorker for their "Le Cashmere Beret." The ad sounds like it was written by an Amway Representative named Anne Rice:
When I called The Vermont Bird Company, a woman answered who had a soft voice and talked spittily through her side molars. "Yes. I am one of the principals of the organization," she said, as if she had established a ballet company or something. Her name is Mimi, and sales are great. "We just sent a beret to Paris Vogue and they called us this morning and absolutely raved about the product. It must be good if the French are requesting American-made berets. It's a pretty hot item." Mimi told me that their berets are expensive ($159) because of the quality of the cashmere (the finest around!) and the intensive labor that goes into each beret. Sometimes they even do custom work. They've made a special cashmere beret for someone who was scaling Mount Everest and little wristlets for a woman with carpal tunnel syndromeberets for the wrists!
Over at John Helmer, a hat distributor based in Portland, berets are much cheaper. They have an ad offering a $10 European Beret. I talked with John Helmer II, son of the founder, now in his seventies. "We've been in berets since 1921. We even get orders from France!" Why berets, I ask. "They are easy to make but they're a hard-to-find itemwe found a niche." Most of their sales are the result of ads placed in the magazine published by American Association of Retired Persons. Does this mean that seniors today are longing for "European" cachet? "When I think of a beret, I think of France." Yeah yeah, and you even get orders from French people.
Helmer brought up a heretofore unmentioned appeal of the beret: " I don't think it's the European aspect that draws people, I think it's that they fit in your pocket." I hung up the phone, horrified. Berets have a new tactic . . . they are going to spread across the globe under the guise of portability.
The beret, my children, is as archaic and frightening as the Freemasons, as mysteriously powerful as the Pyramids, as hypnotic as the Sun. Don't any of you see? It's not Frenchness or authenticity or artsiness that will help the beret prevail for yet another millennium. Berets have used us to stay alive by whatever means possible and nobody is stopping them.
We don't wear beretsTHEY WEAR US. <end>
The fabulous MANY BERET hairs animation by bigtwin
A frequent contributor to STIM, Mike Albo's "My Fake ID" appeared in issue 7.3. He lives in Brooklyn.