Béret Nice

Per wearing beret 2
Béret model

Along with the Eiffel Tower, the baguette and the Citroën 2CV, the béret has become a (caricatured) symbol of French culture. Thus, it was adopted by people like Ernest Hemingway, who wanted to look French even if they weren’t – and the SF who has graciously consented to model his, above. For the people of the Béarn, where the béret is still manufactured and worn, it remains a badge of identity.

Several years ago, on a magazine assignment, I visited the world’s only béret museum, in the bastide town of Nay (pronounced “Nigh”), between Pau and Lourdes. In an earlier post, I recommended a visit to this museum if you’re in that area.

In 1945, 30 factories throughout France manufactured the béret. When I visited, two factories were the last bastions of French béret production. Now, only one exists: Laulhère, a fusion of the two companies, in Oloron-Sainte-Marie.

Musée du Béret - 3
Béret Museum in Nay

The béret museum occupies the site of the former Blancq-Olibet factory. In a video, local people speak of their attachment to the béret as a symbol of Béarnais culture as well as a functional item of headgear. The museum also details the surprisingly intricate manufacturing process, complete with old machines, and includes a portrait gallery of famous béret-wearers.

Musée du Béret, Nay - 2
Former Blancq-Olibet factory

A long history

Many believe the béret originated in the Basque country, but its true French birthplace was probably the Béarn. The very first beret wearers appear to have been the Minoans on Crete, 3,000 years ago. The Romans then adopted them – only aristocrats could wear a white one – and the first references in France date back to the 13th century.

Other types of hat overtook the béret in the early 19th century, but it became popular later as part of the military uniform and also as a fashion accessory. No longer the preserve of shepherds and farmers, it was taken up by writers, artists and intellectuals as a mark of their craft. The béret became an emblem of French patriotism and resistance during the Second World War.

A motoring accessory
A motoring accessory, courtesy of the béret museum

Cottage industry to industrial production

Until the early 19th century, shepherds knitted their own bérets with local wool. As béret-wearing became more widespread, industrial production began. A béret requires 20 separate manufacturing processes – 10 for the exterior and 10 for the interior – before it is considered fit for use.

Most of these methods have barely changed, except to become automated. For example, berets are plunged into soapy water and pounded with mallets until the wooden fibres tighten and become felt-like. Previously, shepherds did this with their feet.

Versatile headgear

The béret was formerly the preferred headgear of men in the Béarn. Receiving a beret was a kind of initiation into adulthood. Although girls wore bérets, especially after World War II, they remain a masculine symbol in country areas.

The popular songwriter, Lucien Boyer, even composed a song regaling the béret’s many uses, including smacking naughty children with it in place of a strap. Don’t try this at home.

The béret’s popularity has waned owing to the general decline in hat-wearing. Cartoonists caricature the “typical” Frenchman wearing one. However, the people of the Béarn retain a strong attachment to it. One farmer remarks in the béret museum’s video, “If you see me without my béret, it’s either because I have lost it or because I have a problem.”

Musée du béret
Place St Roch
64800 Nay

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