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They're Coming Around Again: Berets Are on Top of Fashion

February 14, 2001|GREG MORAGO | HARTFORD COURANT

Fashion is going commando.

We're talking boot-camp chic. Camouflage patterns, uniform colors and Army-issue essentials are staging a military coup in the style arena. Christian Dior, Louis Vuitton, Celine, Michael Kors, MaxMara and Comme des Garcons are all standing at attention this spring with military jackets, shiny brass buttons, ammo-worthy belts, khaki and field maneuver colors.

So how does one accessorize this G.I. Jane look?

With a beret, naturally.

Berets, once the chapeau of choice for Parisian artists and intellectuals (as well as frisky White House interns), are suddenly hot again. The classic beret in all its forms--from constructed military headwear to soft and snappy European Frisbee or floppy Gallic pancake--is seen rakishly perched on the most fashionable heads these days.

And it looks incredibly right. Not just because of our current commando fixation. The beret has become a versatile and indispensable topper for a number of important looks this season and next. "The beret actually started making a comeback even before the military trend," said Irenka Jakubiak, editor in chief of Accessories magazine. "What's clear is that the beret was already gaining popularity early this fall because it was being worn in a very classic way as part of a head-to-toe, finished look. It looks terrific when worn with the new ladylike suit dressing. The beret is looked at as a very classic design."

That's why Jenny Ahn wears hers. "I've always had an interest in berets. I like the shape. To me, it's a classic look," said stylish Gothamite Ahn, a sales manager for the Mayflower Hotel.

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Not a fan of constructed, head-conforming hats, Ahn recently purchased a reversible, crushed-velvet beret that does two-in-one duty. She wanted to avoid the ooh-la-la Parisian beret that would "look like a saucer sitting on top of my head." She found her style with a soft-construct beanie that gave her a fashionable look without traditional beret conformity. "It's a softer look, not as severe," she said.

The new beret fashion movement neatly coincides with a cool new military look for, well, the military. Black berets, now worn by soldiers in elite Ranger units, will become standard issue for all soldiers in June. "Putting that beret on will become part of a soldier's rite of passage," said Sgt. Maj. Jack L. Tilley, the Army's highest ranking enlisted man. "I think it will do a lot for a soldier's pride and image."

In announcing the new dress code, Army Chief of Staff Eric K. Shinseki said that the beret will be "another step toward achieving the capabilities of the objective force" of Army transformation. That's one small step for military objective force, one giant leap for military fashion forwardism. Go, Army!

(Special Forces will continue to wear green berets, and airborne units will still don maroon. Alternative headgear is being considered for the Rangers, understandably miffed, who have traditionally called the black beret their own.)

Such fuss over a simple herdsman's hat.

The modern beret traces its roots to shepherds from the flat Landes region in southwest France who wore the disc-shaped wool caps to shield their eyes from rain and sun while tending sheep.

The iconic image of the beret-sporting French artist (usually with a Gauloise stuck between his lips) came later. Paul Gauguin, more than any other French artist, made the beret an artistic and political symbol in fin de siecle France. The beret was Gauguin's personal signature. Monet wore one, Cezanne, too, but it was Gauguin who made the beret stick. "It was his trademark," said Susan Hood, public relations officer at the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art in Hartford, Conn. "Although other artists of the times wore them, and also painted self-portraits with berets atop their heads, it really is most closely associated with Gauguin."

Gauguin wore his beret purposefully: to establish that he was an outsider, not part of the bourgeoisie. At the time, the beret was "working class, peasant," Hood said. "He viewed himself as an outsider. He wanted to find an outside, primitive place." Hood said Gauguin "rejected Paris." Yet berets are indelibly associated with the City of Lights.

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Unfortunately we also briefly associated them with Monica Lewinsky. Who can forget the eager intern in her DKNY beret throwing herself at an all-too-willing president?

"I think for a while people were kind of put off by them because of what they felt about her," Jakubiak said. "I think people did shy away from them."

Lewinskygate, however, didn't do permanent damage to the beret. "That's in the past and people have forgotten. And they're ready to wear again," Jakubiak said.

Indeed, some hat retailers, such as John Helmer Haberdasher of Portland, Ore., say there never was a beret backlash. "I don't think Monica Lewinsky impacted us one way or another, although people did talk about it," said Louise Marriage, assistant manager at John Helmer. "I don't think it made much difference."

Marriage says beret sales have remained consistent over the years. Berets, she said, are user-friendly headwear because they can be easily plucked off the head and put into a coat pocket. And if they are lost, they are easily replaced: berets, depending on the style, cost from $10 to $45.

While there have been famous modern beret bearers (Coco Chanel, Greta Garbo, Marlene Dietrich and Faye Dunaway among them), style is bringing up a whole new generation of posh beret wearers, from hip-hop's Kangol-clad clan to fashion divas such as Kate Moss and Chloe Sevigny.

Even after the current military madness moves on, berets look to remain popular for fall 2001. Jakubiak predicts a season with exciting new beret options: menswear-inspired prints and patterns such as argyle, houndstooth and herringbone; rich colors such as burgundy and chocolate; and detailing such as rakish, top-of-the-cap loops and ribbons. "It's only going to get stronger," she said. "The beret is a perfect topper."

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