Upon reaching the age of seventy-five, I decided to satisfy a many decades desire: to buy—for the first time—an authentic French beret. I had worked in Europe for two years in the early 1960s when these caps were as ubiquitous on Paris boulevards as people carrying baguettes. French men of all classes—Metro laborers in blue denim overalls, or tailored gentlemen in camelhair coats—wore this traditional head covering.
When I returned to Manhattan in 1965, the few New York men I saw in berets in Washington Square Park seemed like aging, Spanish Civil War Lincoln Brigade volunteers, sporting long white hair and knee length, dark woolen overcoats. Many carried violin, flute, or paint brush cases.
The clear message was that in America only elderly artists donned these imported caps. For a young man of twenty-five (moi) to wear a timeless French beanie would draw accusations of being an affected bohemian, a phony. I was tempted to buy one then, but deferred the purchase of the Gallic chapeau.
Recently, I researched that the classic beret style is the Hoquy Basque model, a circular, flat-crowned hat, woven from wool. The little squiggle on the top center is called a stalk.
Famous European painters—Rembrandt, Monet, Rousseau, and Picasso—wore the cap, but the most famous beret image is the celebrated photograph of Che Guevara. The traditional beret is not to be confused with similarly named military caps adorned with metal badges, and flaunted on the head of soldiers in a macho slant.
In the aftermath of last century’s Great American Hat Extinction, when Fedoras, Panamas, and Homburgs disappeared from men’s fashion, the rarely seen French beret also vanished. As the trend of “Hats No More” spread to France, the number of beret makers dwindled to only one, Laulhère, handcrafting caps since 1840 in the Pyrenees town of Oloron-Sainte-Marie.
Some fifty years have passed, by 2015 I attained an indifferent style sensibility no longer caring what the masses thought of my attire. So, finally, I decided to buy the French beret I formerly craved, discovering I could purchase a Hoquy model online called the Super Basque Anglobasque Premium.
But instead of ordering the cap online, I would visit Del Monico Hatter, my college roommate’s hat store founded in New Haven in 1908, and the last remaining hatter in Connecticut. There, I would receive a personalized fitting, and also remind Ernie Del Monico of the lifetime, roommate, in-store purchase discount proffered in 1957.
Delmonicohatter.com was mounted online in 2002, generating a significant uptick in sales as the hat store was no longer limited to the New Haven/Yale community. The store expanded its inventory, adding, among others, more sizes of imported Italian Borsalinos, and domestic Stetson dress hats. In addition, it also increased the sizes and color options of the Laulhère beret.
The day of my diamond birthday, I took the train to New Haven, wearing a dark, knee length gray overcoat. My head measured 73/8 or 59 centimeters in European sizing. The color choices were black, blue, and dark red. I opted for marine. The beret is 100% Virgin Merino wool, satin lining, leatherette sweatband, and also impermeable, waterproof.
I set the beret squarely atop my head, pausing a moment in front of the Delmonico Hatter mirror. A perfect fit, and comfortable, too. At second glance, I understood why I waited these many decades to buy the cap; my once red hair had turned snowy white, approximating the image of those elder artists in Greenwich Village from a long time ago.