Art & Photography

Elements: The Beret

Port’s fashion features editor, David Hellqvist, reflects on the long, colourful and not completely French history of the beret

‘Homme au béret basque’ by Picasso Pablo. Courtesy of RMN (musée Picasso de Paris) Photo (C) RMN-Grand Palais (musée Picasso de Paris)

Picture a beret wearer in your head and they’ll most likely be French. Perhaps they’ll be in a striped Breton top, if you believe in stereotypes. But if you were to trace the hat’s history, you’ll find that it’s got as much to do with Spanish fashion as with French mode.

The two often overlap, as was the case with French-Basque tennis player Jean Borotra, who famously wore a blue beret while playing at the Wimbledon championship throughout the 1920s. It was Borotra that helped popularise the beret internationally, bringing it to an audience outside of France and Spain, where it has been commonly worn since the 13th century.

But the beret has always had an artistic air too, which only makes its affiliation with elite special forces around the world even stranger. This mixture of the intellectual and the macho means it is an alluring piece of clothing to work with today, as proven by Isaac Larose and Marc Beaugé’s Larose Paris brand. Having mastered everything from the trilby to basketball caps, Larose Paris now also offers berets, with or without its signature zip pocket.

There is no one else, arguably, that personifies the beret and its creative ambitions quite like Pablo Picasso. Born in Malaga in south-east Spain, he spent most of his adult life living in France, where he died in 1973 from a heart attack.

Some viewed him as a sartorial role model as well as an artistic master, as suggested in the 2014 book Institute of Contemporary Arts: 1946-1968. According to its co-author Anne Massey, researching the book unveiled the true power of Picasso’s beret.

“Among the monthly internal bulletins we found one concerning lost property,” Massey says. “It revealed that berets were left behind around the time of the Picasso show – he wore one and everyone was trying to copy him.” Well, we know what they say about imitation…