I was quite self-conscious when I first began wearing a beret. In these days of the ubiquitous ball cap, men don’t wear berets, whereas women do, pulled tightly over the head. That didn’t stop me, though. I bought my first beret — my second, in truth, but the first I wore regularly — at Johnson Woolen Mills in Johnson, Vermont, in September 1998, and I think I’ve never connected so strongly to any other hat or cap.
My first beret came from Germany — my friend Dale bought it while in the Army in the mid-1980s. It is black with a stiff leather inner band, styled like military berets, and the label inside says “Vrai Basque.” “Vrai” is French for “true,” and Basque is a region in Spain on the Bay of Biscay near the Pyrenees, which form the border with France. Another type of beret is the Scottish bonnet, commonly called the tam, which has a knitted ball on the top and often has ribbons hanging down in the back, their purpose to adjust the size. If I counted my bonnets as berets, then the 1998 cap is far from my first, but I consider them separate items for the sake of clarity.
That Vermont beret was forest green, and I wore it continuously during our trip north from Vermont into Quebec. When we drove south into New York a few days later the temperature increased noticeably, making the beret, to my disappointment, too warm to wear, although of course that soon changed, it being September. Despite my misgivings about looking feminine, I wore the beret to work after vacation, a comforting woolen memento of my introduction to North American French culture, and work warehouse friends good-humoredly pegged me “Peppy Le Pew,” making me feel less self-conscious.
That beret’s color faded haphazardly, so I ordered replacements by mail from Johnson Woolen Mills, and my brother-in-law Buzz and his wife Karen bought a black beret in 2001 in Paris for me. Karen said only old men (les vieux hommes) wore berets in France. I’ve since acquired several more berets: a larger black beret made in Hong Kong, bought for the bargain price of $2 at Bee’s Flea Market in downtown Alliance; and blue and green berets from The Hatterie in Akron. These berets all have soft, flexible brims. I found a dark blue Air Force beret with a stiff leather band at Hodge Podge Shoppe in Alliance, and I bought a reddish-brown beret with a stiff brim at The Hatterie. The latter looked pure brown in the fluorescent lights of the store but takes on a reddish-brown hue in other lights. It wouldn’t even chromatically behave when I photographed it, at times looking quite red and others a dull red, but never a true brown. I like the look of the leather band, but I rarely wear the banded berets because their feel can’t compare to the crowning comfort of the bandless beret.
Berets have been around for hundreds of years and come in many shapes, sizes and colors. My berets are typical of the 1900s and are sometimes called a Basque beret. French Alpine troops wore them in World War II, and some U.S. military units wear them. A French Resistance fighter wears one on the cover of “The Resistance” in Time-Life’s World War II series, and one of the escapees wears a beret in the movie “The Great Escape.” Merriam-Webster says the word derives from the Latin “birrus,” meaning a cloak with a hood, that word perhaps of Celtic origin.
The beret is one of the joys of cool weather. Berets are available in many colors at The Hatterie in Akron, and I’m overdue for a trip there to buy a red beret. But I may have to take it outside before buying it to test its true color. I want no pink or purple cap posing as red atop my head.
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