How to Wear a French Beret like Parisians

Your first time wearing a beret is a feeling you won’t be quick to forget.

First of all, by placing a beret on your head both you and your outfit are automatically ten times more interesting. Secondly, you are suddenly very aware that you’ve now joined the very exclusive beret club. The kind that comes with a history of style and responsibility.

While the beret is very easy to get right… it is also very, very easy to get wrong. There is nothing that irks a Parisian more than a willfully unaware tourist who has gone and butchered the trend without even realizing it.

Berets are pieces of widespread, communal fashion. They can be found from the streets of Paris all the way to the clubs of New York and Beijing.

Model Agyness Deyn wears her beret – by Craig A – Wikimedia Commons

A worse feeling than getting your beret styling wrong, is the one of not knowing how to style it in the first place. Luckily the conversation around this topic spans far and wide and local Parisians are only too happy to help people achieve beret perfection.

By keeping a few top tips in mind you’ll be blending in with the locals as you walk the streets of Pairs on your next visit (Read more about Discover Walks walking tours in Paris).

Before we get into it, it is absolutely necessary that we are all on the same page when it comes to this iconic piece of fashion. Let’s take a look at the history of the beret as we make our way into exactly how to wear a French beret like a Parisian.

The History

Think of the word “beret”… what comes to mind? I’ll bet anything that an image of a sultry looking French woman, donning a neck scarf and cigarette, is first on the list. Following that you’re likely seeing an image of a mime in a black and white striped shirt wearing a black beret on his head as he attempts to escape an imaginary box.

The history of the beret wasn’t always this obvious. These famous, stereotypical images exist only because of years of repetition and consumerism. The true history of the beret head piece is much deeper.

Early berets – by Korenchy László – Wikimedia Commons

The first known documentation of the word “beret” can be dated back to 1835. It actually derived from the Latin word “birretum”, that referred to a flat woolen cap that was only worn by peasants.

In 1835 the beret was adopted by soldiers in France who began wearing blue berets to show that they were elite members of the French Army. This was ironic, as the beret remained a symbol of peasantry throughout the rest of Europe.

Perhaps it was seeing the soldiers in berets that lead to what is now the most iconic fashion statement in France. Sometime during the early 1900s the black beret went from drab to fab almost over night.

By the time the 1920s rolled around it was the fashion statement of the Parisian bohemian-elite. Movie stars, musicians, artists — all donning the flat woolen caps atop their heads.

Edith Paif and Serge Gainsbourg amongst the better known locals who helped fuel the beret craze. Even passers by, like Ernest Hemingway, adopted the trend while in town.

Woman wearing a beret in Paris – by Toni Frissell – Wikimedia Commons

Some people note the true recognition of the beret style as only being during the 1930s, when Coco Chanel herself was seen wearing one quite regularly in public.

As the 40s and 50s rolled in, the military took another look at this universal cap. The black beret was reintroduced as part of the military uniform and dubbed a “staple” item for many of the higher ranking officers.

If you can imagine berets with many pins and medals of honor clipped to them — this is where that trend began.

The beret reign was at its peak by the time the 60s started in Paris. This was an era of French film revolution and so big name stars like Brigitte Bardot would show off their beret collections as they attended the cinema galas. The red carpet at Cannes Film Festival was littered with berets during this era.

It’s interesting to note that the beret trend was one that never stopped gaining traction once it began. Usually, fashion trends emerge, become incredibly popular and then disappear all together. Not the beret.

Modern beret – by rawpixel – Unsplash

From the 60s up until this very day the beret remains as stylish and as relevant as ever. From a peasants hat, a military identifier, a red carpet trend all the way to a symbol of political revolution; the beret is here to stay and best we get on board sooner rather than later.

Start taking note of just how often this versatile fashion accessory comes up. Or better yet, start taking note of how often you could incorporate one into your own outfit to spice it up.

My top tips for how to wear a French beret like a Parisian will tell you exactly how to do this.

The Myths

Before I go deep into the very intricate world of beret styling there are a few myths surrounding this accessory that need to be debunked. Without knowing the true history and nature of these caps, it is easy to fall into some areas of misunderstanding when it comes to the trend.

The first is the ever so problematic notion that a beret is solely a symbol of femme fashion throughout Paris. This could not be further from the truth. In fact, as mentioned above, the beret only made its way to the French shores thanks to the military soldiers who wore them first.

Man wearing a beret – by Prince Akachi – Unsplash

Pablo Picasso, Che Guevara and Fidel Castro amongst some of the bigger names around the world who favorited these woolen delights.

Today, in Europe berets are still as widely worn by men as they are by women. They are gender neutral accessories though this is sometimes forgotten in more Western cultures.

The second myth that needs a bit of discussion is the very misleading belief that berets are seasonal fashion items. Some people think that they can only whip out their beret when the seasons start to chill.

While beret presence is definitely heightened during the winter months, there are no rules about when it is most appropriate to don these caps. Having something on your head when it’s cold is always a welcome addition to any outfit. It is, however, equally as appropriate to use a beret to protect your skull from the sun in the peak of summer.

Street Musician wears his beret – by Arūnas Naujokas – Unsplash

The misconceptions about berets can sometimes turn an individual against even trying one on. Embrace the universal, all seasonal culture that is berets and you’ll soon see just why there is so much, historic appeal to these pieces.

Without further adieu, how to wear a French beret like a Parisian…

Dress To Season

Probably the most important piece of advice a Parisian will give you when looking to master the styling of your beret. Similar to the myth of berets being a winter accessory, many people attempting to wear a beret sometimes want to incorporate other winter accessories into their outfits — even if it’s the middle of summer.

The temptation to add a scarf or gloves to your beret-topped outfit might be overwhelming, but if it is not the season for these items then avoid avoid avoid! Nothing says “I don’t know what I’d doing” like a tourist sweating bullets on the side of the Seine because they couldn’t leave their scarf-hat combo at home.

Beret fashion – by Roberto Santorini – Wikimedia Commons

If its hot out, dress accordingly and let the beret be the piece that tops off your minimalist summer look. If its cold, then by all means add that scarf and glove set along with your favorite beret.

I think what Parisians want you to know is that the beret shouldn’t dress you, you should dress the beret. It should be the piece that finishes off an outfit that is already perfectly suitable to the season by itself.

A good way to get your head around this would be to find yourself an outfit that exists perfectly without the presence of a beret as it — and then throw one on anyway! This way none of your clothing was influenced by the cap itself and you’ll achieve that laid back, chic French feel that is so indicative of the true nature of the beret.

Color and Materials Matter

While the peasants may have started the black beret trend, and the military soldiers the blue one not long after that — today’s berets do not conform to any color categories at all.

Stênio Garcia wears the iconic black beret – by Sérgio (Savaman) Savarese – Wikimedia Commons

The black beret is, and always will be, the most iconic, most classy rendition of the beret. This remains true from Paris across the rest of the world. The style icons who rocked the black beret throughout the 1900s made sure of this.

As the trends have evolved, there are now berets available in just about any color, pattern and material imaginable. Historically berets are made from wool, however to keep up with demand and mass production many berets today are made from felt or cotton instead.

While doing a free guided walking tour through Paris it is these berets you’ll find in abundance in the windows of curios shops and stalls targeted at the passing tourists. Blue, green, red, pink, white, grey… the options are endless and the berets will set you back roughly €5 at most.

While these berets are fun to make use of during your trip, and are great souvenirs to take home to family, they are not really the iconic fashion accessories that a local Parisian would wear.

Wool beret – by Christopher Michel – Wikimedia Commons

With berets its all about the weight and cut of the cap. Wool is the preferred material for most Parisians as it is heavy enough to ensure the beret collapses at the exact right angle, and stays up-right on the other.

Parisians also value the more neutral color pallet when it comes to berets. During fashion week it is not uncommon to see more creative and bright renditions of the beret emerging in popular districts such as Le Marais and Bastille. But for the most part, Parisians like to stick to the elegant staple colors of black, red or grey — tout simplement magnifique!

Beware of the Angle

When placing your beret pay particular attention to the angle at which it stands and slants. Because of the universal nature of these caps there is really no right or wrong way to angle them.

Beret Style – by Kater – Wikimedia Commons

That being said, Parisians who value the historic style of the beret will encourage you to make sure that the cap properly stands up on one side of the face, while slanting directly down on the other. Whether this happens left to right or right to left is irrelevant.

Take time to find the perfect angle for your beret in conjunction with your own facial features — it’s different for everyone.

Keep One Nearby

To wear a beret like a true Parisian, above all, keep one nearby at all times! Having a beret in your bag or car at all times makes you ready for any change in weather — a skill mastered by Parisians.

Whether its blazing sun or pelting snow, a beret can save both your skull and your hair-do at the best of times. A true Parisian knows that they can toss on a beret at any time and it will always elevate their look, never the opposite.

A quality beret will be able to be folded up without losing its shape, another reason why material is so important when investing in one.

Ready for the snow – by Romák Éva – Wikimedia Commons

Mastering the art of the beret takes time and practice. Finding the exact color, shape and angle that works bets with your own personal look probably wont happen over night.

The great thing is that the beret trend (clearly) isn’t going anywhere, so once you get it right it is an accessory you can continue to love for a very, very long time. Happy styling!

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