I began losing my hair when I was still in my youthful 30s, becoming aware of the fact while walking bareheaded down a city street one chilly evening. It began to rain and I realized my hair was no longer thick enough to protect me from those cold drops. I needed cover, as the army called it, or a sky, as the hipsters liked to say, or a lid, as a hat was often referred to. A beret was cheap and easy to stuff in a pocket when I needed to put on a motorcycle helmet.
Our generous Uncle Sam gave me my first beret some 10 years before that rain-drop incident, when I graduated from Special Forces (Green Berets) training in September of 1963.
It was a heckuva lot better piece of headgear than the fatigue/utility caps, ugly garrison caps or hideous “flying saucers” that the regular army had to wear back then. Now all U.S. soldiers wear berets. After I got out of the service I pretty much abandoned headgear, except for helmets, until that chilly, rainy evening.
As we used to say in the army–maybe they still do–a beret doesn’t keep the sun out of your eyes or your ears warm, but it makes a dandy potholder. And keeps the body heat from chimneying out the top of my head. Or the sun from burning my bald pate. Nobody seems to know when or where the beret originated, but the style has been around for quite a while, perhaps since the ancient Greeks. In more recent times it was popularized by the Basques in the Pyrenees, and artists in Paris.
I like the informally floppy civilian beret, rather than the more formal military style with a lining and a leather fringe. It used to be that I picked up berets from wherever I could find them, since I lost them on a regular basis. Until I came across a store in Portland, Oregon, called John Helmer Haberdasher, established in 1921. This shop carries a whole selection of headgear, from berets to genuine top hats, and does a thriving mail-order business with its minimalist catalog.
Helmer’s European Beret is my choice, made in the Czech Republic. It’s 10.5 inches in diameter, made of pure wool, one size fits all and it weighs only 3.5 ounces. You can get it in 23(!) colors, costing a mere $14 each. Unfortunately, it is not DOT approved.
For more information: John Helmer Haberdasher, 969 Southwest Broadway, Portland,
Oregon 97205; (866) 855-4976; www.johnhelmer.com