Tuesday, August 21, 2012

From the Australian 'The Age'

Interesting article from the Australian paper 'The Age':

A beanie and brolly in one, the beret's still hot, Sam Vincent writes.

THE BERET might just be the world's most useful hat. Far from a mere circle of felt clinging precariously to the head, it can be arranged to protect its wearer from sun, rain and cold. It also makes a handy dish.
Most importantly, when rolled up like a newspaper it becomes a formidable weapon (naughty French children are threatened not with the wooden spoon, but a caning from the chapeau).
The Musee du Beret is France's homage to this helpful headwear. Housed in the village of Nay in the Pyrenean region of Bearn, it provides a lovable and amusing history of the hat. Even before I enter the museum, I see two men clad in black berets, sitting in the village square sharing a joke. In between laughs they carefully adjust their hats.
Inside the museum, any doubts about the practicality of the beret are dispelled once visitors are shown the introductory film recounting its many functions. One cheerful farmer says: "When you are young, your beret is perfect for collecting cherries. When you become old, it is perfect for belting those who steal your cherries!"
Legend has it that the very first beret was made from the wool of the lamb Noah housed in his ark. Around AD1280 a figure wearing a beret was carved into the church of Bellocq in Bearn, providing the first official recording of the hat. By the second half of the 19th century, large-scale beret factories operated in a handful of towns in Bearn, including in the building that now houses the museum. It is still in this region, and in the neighbouring French Basque country, that the beret is most commonly seen, proudly flaunted in paddocks and on footpaths alike.
It is ironic that a symbol so profoundly linked to French patriotism in the eyes of the world is actually used by the Basques and Bearnaise to assert their cultural individuality. Most Basques see themselves as culturally independent from France and Spain.
The Bearnaise, too, consider their culture unique, being a traditionally Protestant minority with a language related to Occitan, not French.
I pose this to the museum's curator, a tall Bearnaise woman with a black beret slung over her left ear.
She frowns on hearing my question, nodding. "During World War II the beret was a symbol of the French Resistance, and I think for many foreigners this image has stuck. Sure, you do see berets on the streets of Paris and Bordeaux, but for the people of Bearn and the Basque country, it is different. It is a reminder of who we are."
But the beret does more than just display regional identity. Everyone has their own style, and it is said that the position of the hat can even indicate the wearer's emotional state. Apparently, a beret slung down towards the eyes denotes depression, while one worn high on the head gives an air of confidence to its wearer. It can even be incorporated into arguments, with a popular trick to spin it around on the head - a sign of unspeakable frustration.
As with most revered utensils, the production of the beret is a long and complicated process. In the first step, natural coloured wool is wound around a coil and mounted on needles, which stitch the beret together through a series of "slices".
In the olden days these machines were powered by water or hand. The museum has a still functioning example, handsomely painted British racing green like a locomotive.
At this stage the beret looks like a tatty piece of hessian, so to achieve felting, or "fulling", it is submerged into a tub of soapy water and pounded by a special mallet. Next the beret is dyed (always black in Bearn since about the 13th century). The beret is then shaped in a large press, before being "shaved" and ironed to achieve the smooth finished texture.
In Bearn and the Basque country, I haven't seen many youngsters wearing the beret, so I ask the curator if she thinks it is a dying tradition. "Not at all," she interrupts strongly before I can finish.
"Young people are still wearing the beret, it's just that its role is changing. Because there are less of us working on the farms, we instead wear our berets to parties and other special occasions. Why would I stop using a hat that can act as a beanie and umbrella at the same time?"
After finishing in the museum, guests are encouraged to peruse its shop, where hundreds of berets wait on stands for prospective owners. When I am thrown one to try on, I unwittingly learn perhaps the beret's greatest use as it whizzes towards me. Not a bad frisbee at all.

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