Over time, berets have been worn for political, military, religious, and aesthetic reasons. Symbolic meanings developed that were associated with color. The black beret became so popular with French urban workers that beret-wearing resistance movement fighters (Maquis) during World War II were able to blend into crowds without raising suspicion among German occupation forces. The dark beret became the trademark of Che Guevara, leader in the 1959 Cuban Revolution, and many of his later followers. A Che beret is preserved at the Museum of the Revolution in Havana.
Because of its flexibility, the beret was ideal for low-ranking military uniforms. Originally worn by nineteenth-century French seamen, it was adopted during World War I for alpine troops. British Field Marshal Montgomery popularized the beret during World War II as a badge of honor for elite military units. Since the Korean Conflict, berets have identified Special Forces as the "Green Berets," paratroopers trained to drop behind enemy lines (maroon beret) and the U.S. Army Rangers (whose beret was changed from black to tan). During the 1960s Vietnam War, "The Ballad of the Green Berets" brought to public attention the exploits and heritage of these courageous units, symbolized through their caps and shoulder badges.
A controversy broke out in 2000 c.e. when black berets became standard issue to all incoming U.S. Army recruits in an effort to attract and boost morale for an all-volunteer army. Some traditionalists felt the beret as an elite symbol had become compromised. Additionally, to meet the several million beret orders, manufacturers overseas were contracted, which required waiving a U.S. law requiring all clothing and textiles purchased by the military to be produced in the United States.
Over the past half century, United Nations troops have been identified by their baby-blue berets, and peacekeeping forces by orange ones. The beret is worn by modern armies worldwide, including Russia, Iraq, Pakistan, Venezuela, Democratic Republic of the Congo, and South Africa.
In an effort to combat urban crime during the 1990s, volunteer units known as Guardian Angels or "Red Berets" began patrolling city streets in the United States and Europe, later in urban centers in Africa, South America, and Japan. Their bright red berets serve as warnings to petty criminals and reassurance to community residents.
Jamaican Rastafari, and later followers in Central America and the United States, motivated by Black Religious Nationalism, follow biblical prescription by wearing long-uncut, uncombed, and matted hair (dreadlocks) covered by a knitted or crocheted black beret with red, gold, and green circles. Rastafari consider the beret and dreadlocks as an individual's crown, symbols of power representing the Biblical Covenant of God with His Chosen People, Black Israelites (Genesis 9:13).
As a Western fashion statement, the beret has been worn as "classic" sportswear by adults of both sexes and children since the 1920s and is especially popular during wartime and the winter olympics. As part of the U.S. Girl Scouts' required uniform, the beret was adopted in 1936 and only replaced in 1994 by the universally popular visor baseball cap.
Variations of the beret include the Scotch Bonnet, a flat, woven or knitted woolen cap with ribbon cockade and feathers that serve to identify the wearer's clan and rank. Worn at an angle and usually dark blue, called "Bluebonnet" for Scotland's national color, it has been a symbol of Scottish patriotism. The entire Highlander costume including the Bluebonnet was outlawed for many years by the British government. After construction of Balmoral Castle at Aberdeenshire, Scotland, in 1855, the Bonnet came to be called the "Balmoral" because of recognition given the Highlanders by Queen Victoria and Prince Albert.
Other Scottish types include the tam-o'-shanter, made of brushed wool with a large pompom in the center and named after a Robert Burns poem, and the striped woolen Kilmarnock Cap, also with pompom, named for a town in Strathclyde.
See also Afrocentric Fashion; Felt; Hats, Men's; Hats,
Women's; Military Style.
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