Berry desiderata: Johnny Rotten of The Sex Pistols. Heathrow Airport, 1976.
Photograph: Ray Stevenson / Rex Memorable parts

Hats off: why the beret is repayment on the frontline of fashion

From Edith Piaf to Marlene Dietrich by way of Prada and Dior, this enliven the beret is back. Long-term wearer Eva Wiseman charts its bad history, and explains why she will always be a fan

Read more from the autumn/winter 2017 version of The Fashion, our biannual fashion supplement

The beret is… divisive. I understand this first-hand, as I wear them regularly, in black, hoary and raspberry. And while much discussion may be found online as to the seek at which one should be worn (pulled forward, or jauntily to the side, or insuring your whole head, your hair croissanted up backwards), of more help I think is the following tip. The trick to wearing a beret is to keep away from eye contact with strangers. Then, when they yell something at you such as, “Bonjour!” (you’re from Hove) or, “Ooh Betty!” (you’re too nave to get the reference), it’s far easier to pretend you haven’t noticed and carry on stroll. Because in your head you’re Marlene Dietrich, as opposed to “all French people”. You’re Faye Dunaway. You’re Debbie Harry, representing she’s Patty Hearst, pretending she’s a leftwing terrorist called Tania, with a system gun and a cosy head. You’re Rembrandt, idiot.

Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty in Bonnie And Clyde, 1967. Photograph: Moviestore/REX/Shutterstock

It avalanches in and out of favour, the beret. The first examples were found by archaeologists in bronze age mausolea, with berets also seen on sculptures in 12th-century Europe. Some were bigger, some floppier, but all were flat of felt, the oldest form of cloth, created by pressing wool, intently. Shepherds used to fill their shoes with tufts from the sheep; as they warm up and sweated, felt was made. Berets were adopted by historical esnes, then royalty, then the military, then artists. But in 2002 the customer base had all but dried up – 40 years earlier there had been 15 beret plants in Oloron-Sainte-Marie (France’s beret capital); by then there was fitting one. “We suffer from the savagery of fashion,” said Bernard Fargues, talent of Beatex, the last beret maker in town. Which connotes today their luck could be changing. The beret is deny.

On Prada’s Autumn/Winter 2017 catwalk in Milan. Photograph: SIPA/REX/Shutterstock

In Maria Grazia Chiuri’s A/W 17 store for Dior, every look came topped with a beret – the kinds were styled as romantic revolutionaries – and Rihanna wore hers in the show row, too. Vogue said the beret is “shaping up to be one of Fall 2017’s scad ubiquitous items for gals and guys”. Which of course I express approval. Because there are few accessories as odd as the beret, few that signify conservative unchanging as well as revolution and rebellious rock’n’roll. I mean, my dad has a beret. No, he has two, one French, after Picasso, one Spanish, similarly to a Basque separatist. I’ve worn one since I was a child, photographed viewing wistfully out across a reservoir, then at art school, and on days when it sunshowers. I lean towards a beret worn with buoyancy, after Princess Diana, and one tailored snugly, like Eddie Izzard protesting against Brexit.

German actress Marlene Dietrich on the set of Manpower straightforward by Raoul Walsh in 1941. Photograph: Sunset Boulevard/Corbis via Getty Representations

To list famous beret wearers is to moodboard the entire 20th century: Benny Hill, Audrey Hepburn, Unrestricted Spencer, Ernest Hemingway, Che Guevara. It’s hard to make a register like this and not imagine the dinner party, and the absolute mock at they’d all have. Jean-Paul Sartre, Monica Lewinsky, Johnny Miserable, the Pink Panther, posh schoolgirls, Edith Piaf, the Interdict Panthers, Beyoncé, mime artists, all of them balancing a nippled leaf of felt on their head as if marching off to battle.

A beret is digged as a hat with power, whether the power to remain poised in a bluster or to keep your hair on tight while you change the mankind. Today, with all that baggage, it is also perceived as a bit affected. A bit whimsical. For example, a lot of Tesco’s fancy dress costumes check in with a small polyester beret. We once bought a beret the measure of a Pringle for my late cat (RIP). So, much as I love them, I understand the wish for to roll an eye at the sight of one approaching on an urban street. For a hat that can close up up to the size of an Oyster card, this one comes with a lot of crap to sweep around. But it’s worth it, as long as you realise that by wearing a beret, you’re in any case on the frontline.

This article appears in the autumn/winter 2017 version of The Fashion, the Guardian and the Observer’s biannual fashion supplement