Wednesday, May 27, 2009

The Beret and the Spanish Civil War

If there is one historical event that people associate with the beret, it is most likely the Spanish Civil War (1936-39).

However, the three Carlist wars between 1833 and 1876, formed the beginning of the use of the beret as a piece of uniform and identification for a political group.

In the beginning the ultra conservative catholic Carlists wore the traditional black beret that was already worn in the Basque region. After the Battle of Alsasua (22 April, 1834) the captured Liberal troops from La Mancha, Valencia and Andalusia that chose to join the victors (and that way stay alive) were given distinctive (French made) red berets which were rejected by the regular Carlist troops.

Originally the red berets were only worn by this 'elite' battalion of Guías de Navarra (Navarese Guides). The regular Carlist troops chose distinctive blue berets. The red beret soon gained popularity among all Carlists, despite turning the wearers into great target points for sharpshooters. Since then the red beret (with or without tassels) is very much their symbol.


I quote from J. MacClancy's  'The Decline of Carlism':

"The beret became to signify Carlism and all it implied."

"One requité, about to be shot by a Republican firing squad who have removed his beret, shouts: Please, leave me the beret! I want to die with it on as the best safe conduct to present myself before the Tribunal of God, for whom I die.

In the Spanish Civil War of 1936-39 Carlists still wore their red beret, with tassel. Their opponents – Republican, communist and anarchist militias and the International Brigaders also wore berets. Theirs were generally a black or navy blue beret (traditional head gear of the Spanish workers) or a khaki military style beret.

Ernest Hemingway donned a beret during the conflict, and for many International Brigaders it was a first priority to acquire a beret upon arrival in Spain.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Tania the Guerilla

And after the last two posts on Women Wearing Berets and Ché Guevara, I have to write a few lines on Tamara Bunke as well.

(Haydée) Tamara Bunke (Bider), aka Tania the Guerilla, was a communist revolutionary and spy who played a prominent role in the Cuban Revolutionary Government and various Latin American revolutionary movements.

Like Guevara, Bunke was born in Buenos Aires, Argentina, of Erich Bunke and Nadia Bider, communist/Jewish refugees from Germany in the 1930's.

In 1952 Bunke moved with her family to the DDR, where she studied political science and started working for the Stasi, taking on espionage missions throughout Eurpe and South America.

Bunke first met Guevara in 1960, acting as his interpreter during his visit to the DDR and later on travelled with him through South America, now under her alias Tania.

From 1964 she worked in Bolivia, spying for what was to be Guevara's last campaign. Under the alias Laura Gutiérrez Bauer, she gathered information on Bolivian high society while working as a teacher and posing as a collector of folk music. In 1966 Bunke joined Juan Vitalio Acuña's group of Bolivian guerrillas, possibly against Guevara's wishes.

On 31 August 1967, Bolivian soldiers ambushed Acuña's group while they were crossing the Rio Grande and killed Bunke. She was buried in an unmarked grave on the periphery of the Vallegrande army base, until her body was transferred to Cuba, where she is reburied alongside her comrades. 

Ché's Boina

"Name a famous person wearing a beret" and 9 out of 10 people will say Ché Guevara.

Ernesto Ché Guevara was an Argentinean born Marxist revolutionary, famous for his participation in the Cuban revolution. Was it not for the picture taken by Alberto Korda in 1960, you can wonder how many –younger- people would know about Ché these days; the picture of Ché, taken while attending a Havanna funeral, has become one of the most known icons of popular culture –reproduced on posters, murals, T-shirts, shoes; advertising anything from vodka to cigarettes; worn by soccer players on various body parts as a tattoo and functioning as a role model for anyone regarding him- or herself as progressive and leftist. 

This blog is obviously not the right place to discuss politics, but it does amaze me time and time again how people adore this symbol of rebellion and revolution; not the under privileged, but very much the wealthy, hip and chic (that are so much what Ché fought against).

Yes, Ché was in many ways an admirable man, a tireless revolutionary with great ideas and a much needed initiator of social reform, but at the same time he was, and became more and more so, a totalitarian, a murderer, the founder of Cuba's notorious labor camps, a strict censor of writing and music and head of a firing squad – eliminating his political enemies.


Much has been written, sung and filmed about Ché, pro and contra and even more can be found on the web. One interesting article on the commercialization of Ché's image can be found here; and more specifically on the famous photo 

Either way, Ché (posthumously) became a great promoter of beret-wearing for the new generation.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Berets and Women

Although a centuries old headgear for men, it wasn't until Marlene Dietrich put on a black beret in the 1920's that the beret started to become a unisex garment (and the beginning of her collection of 64 berets...).

Greta Garbo probably had the biggest influence on the new trend, wearing one in the film The Kiss (1929).

Still, it took to well into the sixties for the beret to become an accepted headdress for women, thanks to Brigitte Bardot and movie stars after her.

Where Marlene Dietrich scandalised the petite bourgeoisie with her action, the beret became very much part of women uniforms as well; be it in the military, the "La Causa" Brown berets, girl-school uniforms or the Purple Berets (NGO against domestic violence). 

These days the beret is fully accepted as a headdress for men and women of all ages and income levels, Hollywood celebrities, female presidents and wife's of prime ministers leading the way. 

Thursday, May 21, 2009

17th Century depictions of berets in Oloron Ste Marie

More antigue pictures of berets. These are in beautiful detail and show two berets identical to the present day berets in black and red. The pictures are of the 'nativity crib' in the cathedral of Oloron Ste Marie, heartland of the (French) berets. The sculpture is from the 17th century, showing peasants and shepherds visiting the newborn Jesus, holding their berets respectfully in their hands (thanks to Kokoryko, a writer on ).

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Sculptures with berets from the 13th Century

The following article comes from Kokoryko, a writer on Although I do not share his conclusion about the sculptures being the oldest beret-representations in the world (see my previous post about pre-historic representations of the beret), they are -to the best of my knowledge- the oldest evidence of the beret as we know it today. 

Thanks David, for your suggestion!

The -so far- oldest known beret representation is located in Bellocq. On the portal of the Notre Dame church of this little village, located 15 km West of Orthez, are two sculptures representing beret wearing men. The church has been built between 1280-1300.
One of the men is a pilgrim (probably on his way to Santiago da Compostella), but the weathering of the other one is too deep to be sure of what he is, but he undoubtedly wears a beret. 
These sculptures are a “proof” that the beret has its origins in Bearn. The church of Bellocq is also interesting for its other medieval sculptures on the portal and nearby is a fortress build at the same epoch as the church by Gaston de Moncade, ruler of Bearn , still under renovation.
I will visit this small village again in spring, there is a lot of history there.  

Well, one may say: hey it is a pilgrim, he comes from another country may be, and the sculptor represented a foreigner, and this beret is not Bearnese! It is a possibility, but we will see in the next tip that the medieval artists represented themselves or the people of their vicinity, even in very “exotic” situations, so, it is very probable that the beret has its origins in Bearn. 

Friday, May 15, 2009

La Encartada

One of two museums dedicated to the beret is the La Encartada Museoa in Balmaseda, Spain. The factory was established by Marcos Arena Bermejillo in 1892 and continued production until it's closure a century later, in 1992. The principal product has always been the Basque beret, supplied in large numbers to the police and military in Spain and abroad. 

In 2007 the factory re-opened as a museum, displaying a range of machines for processing wool originating in many parts of Europe.

The raw wool was cleaned on a devil, made in Catalonia in 1956, carded and lapped on machines made by Platt Bross of Oldham in 1892 and spun into yarn on a 360-spindle self-acting mule build in 1892. Power was provided by a Francis-type turbine manufactured by J M Voith of Heidenheim, Germany, in 1904, which drove a dynamo made by Edison in Paris in 1892, transmitting power through line-shafting provided by the Manchester agents John M Sumner & Co in 1891-92. The knitting frames were Spanish made (Bilbao), fulling machines were British made and various Belgian machines were acquired over the years.


La Encartada displays a traditional Basque factory, but it also shows how entrepreneurs were able to integrate machines from many European countries into a single manufacturing process. 

Nearby are several workers’ houses, some built at the same time as the factory and some from the early twentieth century.

On the web I found various links to the museum and it's (archaeological) history:

The museum's web site in English:

On the history and archaeology of the the (workers') buildings at the La Encartada premises:

Information on La Encartada and berets (in Spanish) with a video clip:


Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Txapela and Txapeldun

The Basque word Txapela is generally translated as beret, but really means 'hat'. A beret is a hat, but a hat not necessarily a beret… The word has become synonymous though with Basque identification and culture; restaurants, bars, etc called Txapela are many. In the Basque Country it is the custom to award a beret to the winner of a competition, especially a bertsolari competition (a bertsolari is a singer of bertso, a musical verse generally sung by two alternating bertsolaris). The Basque word for champion is txapeldun – literally, 'one who has the hat (beret)'.

My favourite beret is an Euskaldun Txapela bElósegui.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Framed label

And this label made it into an art gallery; framed in a hand made ash frame it is priced at GBP 125
(Rennart Art Gallery, Kent, UK). 


fine woven silk beret label

archival mount and handmade frame approx. 26cms. x 22cms.

(label size 9cms. x 6cms.)


Makes me think of a book by Basque writer Bernardo Atxaga, The Accordionist's Son; a novel placed around the Hotel Alaska in the Spanish Basque Country, during and after the Spanish Civil War. 

Monday, May 11, 2009


The beret may be the most humble piece of headgear imagineable, the labels tend to be quite over the top in symbolism and colors. 
Here a few samples of some old and present day beret labels from France and Spain.



And two elaborate French labels (by "Plein Ciel") for military berets:

The Making of the Beret

There haven't been many innovations in the beret industry, over the years. Times and fashion change, but the making of a beret is pretty much the same now as it was done by the original hatters by hand, over a century ago. Of course, machines have standardized production and automated different steps, but the soul of the beret is still the same as a century ago.      

You can't study beret-making as such; it is a trade, taught by masters to apprentices, from person to person, from generation to generation. The machinery in use now is in essence similar to the machines used 80 years ago and still, the manual work and the care for each piece is crucial to the quality of the end product.