The Beret

It was no wonder that the actress Marlene Dietrich, her beret set at a jaunty angle, so alarmed the inhabitants of 1920s Paris. She not only threatened sexual stereotypes, but her choice of headgear had evolved from the scarlet Phrygian cap worn by the bloodthirsty sans-culottes of the French revolution. Until Dietrich adopted it, the beret had been a symbol of rebellion.
The beret continued as French peasant headgear before becoming “fashion” in the 20th century. In the hands of Chanel, it became one of the sassiest borrowings from the male wardrobe that we have. Think of 1920s Apache dancers—all tight skirts and heaving breasts—and you're on the right lines. Dietrich gave it a touch of delicious deviance by wearing it with a suit, collar and tie for the immaculate femme fatale look. In World War II, it came to symbolise the indomitable spirit of the French resistance, before gliding into the post-war Left Bank world of smoky cafes, philosophical arguments and self-promoting beatniks such as Jean-Paul Sartre and Juliette Greco. Remember Audrey Hepburn in Funny Face, and you're there.
In the 1950s, when hats became symbols of overdesigned affectation, modern style was about simplicity. And nothing looked younger or more casually chic than a beret pulled down low on one side, to highlight a beautiful eye. Catherine Deneuve, Jeanne Moreau and Brigitte Bardot—all matelot sweaters and curling cigarette smoke—made the beret so sexy that designers such as Sonia Rykiel put it on the catwalk.
As the essence of the cheeky Parisian sparrow, the popularity of the beret has endured, on and off, ever since.
But it has travelled, too. It was great on Faye Dunaway in Bonnie and Clyde and still looks good on the likes of Naomi Campbell and Linda Evangelista.
It may be a style that works best in France, but it can still make even the dowdiest Englishwoman look chic and sexy. No wonder it's sempiternal, as TS Eliot would say.

(First published February 2003)