Is there any headgear packed with more Francophile symbolism than the beret? The floppy wool hat was a shepherd’s cap, then the height of women’s fashion, and finally became a military “badge of courage, a mark of distinction” (to quote John Kennedy). The beret went to war in World War II, thanks to the Resistance and the British Commandos. It was so fashionable, but even some Nazis wore them (the Panzer Corps). The French and other Continental armies adopted them later; most nations have different colors for different branches of service, but the French even have different styles of beret for many regiments (and the Foreign Legion clings to the pre-beret képi blanc). In the US Army, it was an illegal hat worn by Special Forces for nine years before being approved by Kennedy in 1961, to the everlasting vexation of the Army Institute of Heraldry. To this day, it is the only article of American military uniform ever approved directly by a president.
And one time, the beret was worn only by elite forces in United States: red for paratroops, black for Rangers, and green for SF. Air Force SOF operators had blue and red ones. Even the SEALs flirted with a nonregulation ripstop camouflage one in Vietnam. The beret lost its cachet when struggling Army chief, Rick Shinseki (yes, the same bozo currently mismanaging the VA) awarded the Rangers’ black beret as a sort of social promotion to every generator mechanic and water purification specialist in the army. This drove the Rangers to a tan beret, But what it really did was make all the elite units more or less lose interest in berets entirely. Thanks to Shinseki, it was now, “a badge of mediocrity, a mark of nothing in particular.”
Meanwhile, after the Cold War ended, the conscript armies of Europe it, including France’s, converted into much smaller professional armies. The demand for berets collapsed faster than the politruk of the Third Shock Army’s hope for a retirement dacha on the Riviera. And it took a while, but France’s last beret manufacturer, a company recognized as an Enterprise du Patrimoine Vivant, or Enterprise of Living Patrimony, is on the ropes. The Chicago Trib:
PARIS — Laulhere, a 174-year-old beret- maker, is fighting to keep the quintessential French headgear French.
Laulhere became the country’s sole maker of traditional berets after it recently bought Blancq-Olibet, its only French competitor, which was almost 200 years old. Cheaper knockoffs from China, India and the Czech Republic made survival hard for local makers of berets, which have been as much a symbol of France as baguettes and Gauloises cigarettes.
Based in the foothills of the French Pyrenees, where the round and flat woolen hat was invented by shepherds to protect themselves from the Basque region’s damp, Laulhere has joined the frontlines of the battle for the “Made in France” label as foreign-made berets steal an increasing share of a shrinking market. On its website, Laulhere says: “To us ‘Made in France’ still means something.”
“There are berets and there are berets,” said Mark Saunders, the head of sales at Laulhere and an Irishman who has lived in France for over two decades. “If you don’t want to smell like a sock wearing a wet beret, only our traditional French beret doesn’t retain odors. Small details like that make a difference.”
The fight for survival by Laulhere — rescued in a purchase by French military-garment maker Cargo-Promodis with a 500,000 euro ($686,000) injection in late 2012 — tells the tale of President Francois Hollande’s competitiveness challenge. French companies struggling to compete and retain market share have contributed to the nation’s slumping economy, which barely grew after 2012 and left unemployment at a 16-year high.
via Last French beret maker fighting for survival – chicagotribune.com.
Say what? Euro cradle-to-grave socialism produces a slumping economy? And France’s decades of protectionism haven’t helped? Unpossible!
Laulhere… is banking on demand from the high end of the market to revive its fortunes after its bankruptcy in 2012.
Laulhere, which had 1.7 million euros in sales last year and didn’t make a profit, expects “to break even this year,” he said.
Ah, “break even.” Dans la belle France, they call that la victoire.
The company plans to produce 200,000 hats this year, up from 160,000 in 2013. Half of its beret production goes to armies around the world. The rest goes to the fashion industry and to traditional wearers of the headgear.
Men’s berets from Laulhere can cost anywhere from 40 euros to 75 euros, while women’s are priced between 20 euros and 95 euros. Imports can cost as little as two euros.
Get outa here. They’re having a hard time selling hundred-plus-dollar berets? When the competition sells for three bucks? How could that possibly be?
Global competition has come from berets manufacturers in China, Pakistan, India and the Czech Republic, where the company Tonak a.s. produces fashion berets for women.
Until the late 1980s, France produced several million berets each year. Sales slid for decades, with cheaper products made in Asia. The nail in the coffin came in 2001 when the French military ended conscriptions, eliminating hundreds of thousands of army orders.
The end of the draft appears to have done for their captive market. Because after all, who’s more captive than a draftee? Well, prisoners, but even in France, they don’t wear, “a mark of distinction, a badge of courage.” (By the way, where do they keep the cons, now that they tore down the Bastille and Devil’s Island is gone to weeds?)
It’s hard to see how Laulhere — or any other European high-cost, low-automation manufacturer — survives in a global world. The executives’ plans to take the company upmarket make as much sense as anything. Luxury goods can sell on snob appeal, and luxury sellers can successfully brand and sell handcraft work. In the luxury market, overpriced goods are valued for their sheer signaling potential. They tell people you have enough money to be careless with it. So maybe they do have a chance. It would be nice to see them succeed. But there is a faint aroma of buggy-whip about the whole thing.
Would you pay a hundred bucks for a beret? Hell, the Q course is still giving them out for “free.” That’s how we got ours. Back when it still was, “a mark of distinction, a badge of courage.”
Kevin was a former Special Forces weapons man (MOS 18B, before the 18 series, 11B with Skill Qualification Indicator of S). His focus was on weapons: their history, effects and employment. He started WeaponsMan.com in 2011 and operated it until he passed away in 2017. His work is being preserved here at the request of his family.
7 thoughts on “We got ours for free. No wonder the factory’s on the skids.”
Why don’t the special forces adopt the slouch hat? The Gurkhas, Kiwis and the Aussies wear it, so did the Yankees and the Confederates and the doughboys, so it’s got history and style. It’s also much more practical for outdoors than the beret. I’d even suggest you use the Smokey Bear crimp, imho it’s more sensible than the Aussie bash since it doesn’t pool the rain on top of your head.
Not sure if you transatlantics recognise this guy:
And we’d all rather forget him, er, her…..no, wait, it:
The old Air Force Air Commandos used to wear the slouch hat. The Smokey hat was WWI-era field headgear, and has come since then to symbolize drill sergeants in the Army and Marines.
“Well I’m not military, but somehow on Manning, it looks like a 3rd nipple-areolar complex”, saith the Master of Mammaries.
In other words, an udder catastrophe…
I don’t know that I can agree with the whole concept/idea of “elite uniform items”, to be quite honest.
It’s long been my observation that men who strive for such things as uniforms or specific uniform items are missing something. Every young man I ever met who chose to join the Marines solely based on them having the “coolest uniforms” later developed into something quite different than what the Marines generally say they want as exemplar Marines. Same-same with the old-day “beret seekers”. Ask a guy why he wants to go Airborne, and if he tells you “I want to be the best, train with the best, and do all the high-speed training that Airborne units do…”, and he’ll likely be a damn fine paratrooper. The one who tells you “I wanna wear the beret…” is usually not going to be worth shit, really.
Shinseki made the same fundamental mistake: Uniforms or uniform items don’t make the elite; the elite make the uniform or uniform item what it is. If we’d put the post garbagemen into black berets, and the Rangers into denim ballcaps, the denim ballcaps would be the headgear of repute, not the beret.
We have a huge problem in the US Army with mistaking the sizzle for the steak, the smoke and flame for the fire.
All this BS accoutrement bullshit and shiny crap on the dress uniforms are completely unnecessary, except as peacock-like plumage to impress others. And, yet… The idiots decided to remove officer branch insignia from the combat uniform, where it actually serves a freakin’ purpose. Try walking into a TOC or other situation where you need to talk to the ADA guy, or you want to try to assess the credibility of someone in an impromptu moment of chaos: Say you’re in the midst of a convoy ambush, and there are three or four different Lieutenants vying for the “in charge” position. Wouldn’t you like to be able to tell, at a flippin’ glance, which one is the Infantry officer? The old Combat Leader’s Tabs served a freakin’ purpose, and should have been left on the combat uniforms. Symbology does matter in some circumstances.
Yet, at the same time, investing too much into it turns the symbol itself into something that’s quite the opposite of what it forms from. I’m not a fan of the entire mentality of “badge hunting”, especially when it turns on things like getting into these “elite units” and schools. Every guy I sent off to go to Ranger School and/or the SF “Q” course whose sole motivation was essentially “I want a cool bit of gear to wear, to shove in other guys faces…” usually wound up failing the course or selection. The ones whose true motivation was something like “I’m tired of being a leg in a unit that doesn’t get money to train…” or “I want to be the best…” usually did quite well.
Which is why I have a very jaundiced view of the whole thing, to be quite honest. I sometimes wonder if we wouldn’t be better off doing away with all that stuff, and going back to having virtually nothing on the uniform but rank and unit insignia.
It’s a good hat: keeps the sun and rain off you, you can fan a fire with it, harvest food, and water your horse and dog. And even if the camp followers all end up wearing it, at least it’s useful. Discarding practical things because dimwits make them unfashionable is arguably sillier than the dimwits copying them for appearances sake. Time to play the ace……slouch hats are tactical! (Probably not a good idea to make them black on account of the heat, but then again those Touaregs had black robes for some reason…). Ok, the Green Beret has so much meaning to you guys because of its glorious history, so I can understand the attachment. Given the current state of things, you’d better hang onto those before the Grösfaz decrees you have to wear pink lace bonnets. Mind you, having your foes rolling about laughing might be a useful tactical surprise. Does Bazza read this blog?
This year, “tactical” is FDE or Multicam (really knock off Multicam, because 90% of the tactisploitation vendors are too cheap to pay Crye for a Multicam license).
I remember after reporting into 1st SPWAR Tng Bn., USAJFKSWCS and they took us to CIF. We got issued the large ALICE and frame, LBE, and the rest of the TA-50 we’d need for the next few months. Included in that issue, was the hat. Fluffy, green, flat, with the black liner and white tag – Beret, Men’s, Rifle Green, (size 7). Standing there with it, it was explained to us that it should be returned in that same condition, after we quit or failed. Very many did return in that condition.
I still have mine, (and others), and even though it was free, it was costly. I wouldn’t have it any other way.