The history of things, whatever they are, has always been fascinating to me for one reason or another. The same goes for etymology or the history of words. But, for today I’m going to attempt to write a few articles on something that’s popped up. Berets–their respective colors, whose heritage those colors are tied to and how we got to this point. We’ll start with the famed Green Beret, try to trace Beret history and look at the colors used today by Rangers and Airborne of the US Army and its history.
This is in some ways a fashion of war. The sense of purpose and identity related to these garments, patches and other things such as coins is remarkable. These items come to take more meaning than what’s intended when they’re built. For example, take a DD-214, something I won’t forget–it’s the final form that sums your military career on a piece of paper. I wonder if I made paintings and blankets with your DD-214 printed on them they’d sell like hotcakes.
Anyway, berets are worn by military and police units all around the world. A beret is merely a round, soft, flat-crowned hat. It’s practically useless–but it’s come to be much more than its definition. Mass production supposedly began in the 19th Century, and the beret is attributed to France and Spain. According to the entry in Wikipedia:
Archaeology and art history indicate that headgear similar to the modern beret has been worn since the Bronze Age across Northern Europe and as far south as ancient Crete and Italy, where it was worn by the Minoans, Etruscans, and Romans. Such headgear has been fashionable among the nobility and artists across Europe throughout modern history.
The Basque style beret was the traditional headgear of Aragonese and Navarrian shepherds from the Ansó and Roncal valleys of the Pyrenees, a mountain range that divides Southern France from northern Spain. The commercial production of Basque-style berets began in the 17th century in the Oloron-Sainte-Marie area of Southern France. Formerly a local craft, beret-making became industrialized in the 19th century. The first factory, Beatrix-Laulhere, claims production records dating back to 1810. By the 1920s, berets were associated with the working classes in a part of France and Spain and by 1928 more than 20 French factories and some Spanish and Italian factories produced millions of berets.
In Western fashion, men and women have worn the beret since the 1920s as sportswear and later as a fashion statement.
Military berets were first adopted by the French Chasseurs Alpins in 1889. After seeing these during the First World War, British General Hugh Elles proposed the beret for use by the newly formed Royal Tank Regiment, which needed headgear that would stay on while climbing in and out of the small hatches of tanks. They were approved for use by King George V in 1924. The black RTR beret was made famous by Field Marshal Montgomery in the Second World War.”
The recent introduction of a new military unit within the US Army named Security Force Assistance Brigade caused an outburst of online activity after a photo of a Green–or shade of green–beret was leaked online as the unit’s to-be headgear. So, why are these Beret’s so important to various groups? Let’s start with the Green Beret.
The history of the Green Beret in the US Army starts in 1954–when a rifle green beret, traditional beret color of the British Royal Marine Commando Units, was selected as the headgear of the 77th Group. It’s said the decision was made because of the commander, Col. Raff III, was concerned about his unit’s esprit de corps. If we skip over some years–Special Forces soldiers are wearing the Green Beret in Vietnam and it becomes their icon.
In 1962, President John F. Kennedy acknowledged the Green Beret’s unique and special mission and felt the unit deserved to have unique headgear and heraldry to set them apart.
In 1962, he called the green beret
“A Symbol of Excellence,
A Badge of Courage,
A Mark of Distinction
In the Fight for Freedom.”
The next article will contain more history of the beret at war and a look at the black beret.
Featured image courtesy of the U.S. Army.