By Philip Delves Broughton in Oloron Sainte Marie
02 Aug 2002
Farm workers, philosophers and gamines winking astride their bicycles made the beret an icon of French life.
Whether worn low over the brow, in the style of Basque shepherds, or aslant, like Jean-Paul Sartre, tipped back like a carefree Breton sailor or straight like a Resistance heroine, the beret became a symbol of France.
But now, it has all but vanished from everyday life and the remnants of the beret industry are struggling for survival.
Forty years ago, there were 15 beret factories in Oloron-Sainte Marie, France's beret capital, a picturesque town in the foothills of the Pyrenees. Now there is just one, employing 85 people, mostly women, churning out berets for armies from New Zealand to South America, and a few for the domestic market.
But even the foreign markets are drying up. The Cubans, for example, now use cheaper manufacturers in the Far East. Their last big order, for 20,000, came in 1997 for the 30th anniversary of Che Guevara's death.
A beret bought in a a souvenir shop in France has probably been made in China. It will be very different from the real, hand-crafted French beret but few seem to care.
"We suffer from the savagery of fashion," said Bernard Fargues, the head of Beatex, the last beret maker in town. A thin, lugubrious man, M Fargues is all business and wears a beret only for special occasions.
In Bearn, close to the Spanish border, the beret is a symbol of rural independence, both French and Basque. The earliest record of it is in 13th century stone carvings on a local church. Shepherds found it warm and versatile, as it rarely blew off in mountain storms and could be pulled over the eyes at night. It became known as the beret basque.
Its popularity surged in the late 19th and early 20th centuries in France and soon the fashion industry adopted it, making it a popular item for American women in the 1920s. Then came the British army, followed by the Americans, and the Boy Scouts.
By the 1950s, the beret was everywhere, on children and celebrities, such as Che, the jazz musician Thelonius Monk and the artist Picasso. There was even a French cartoon superhero, SuperDupont, who wore a beret and striped shirt and carried a cockerel.
"Urbanisation ruined everything," said M Fargues. "At first when rural people moved into the cities, they carried on wearing the beret. And the intellectuals began to wear it as a symbol of solidarity.
"They were cheaper than the formal hats that the bourgeois wore. But then people stopped wearing berets in the towns because it came to be seen as a sign of a provincial, a peasant. Beret wearing declined in proportion to the rural exodus."
French newspaper cartoonists still use the beret as shorthand for pompous jingoism or nostalgia in politicians. Older men in rural communities, especially in the south, still wear them.
But Beatex and the only other French maker, Blancq-Olibet, in the nearby town of Nay, have had to lay off workers in recent years. Blancq-Olibet has set up a small museum to try to boost interest in the product.
"We've thought about asking for government help," said M Fargues. "It hasn't yet come to that, but it's not easy. The Americans are particularly protective of their beret makers, which deprives us of a big market." His factory produces 700,000 berets a year, of which just a tenth are the traditional berets basques.
Among the French, though, the beret seems to have retreated to its rural domain, patiently waiting for its next turn in the spotlight.