In honor of a favorite item from our new fall line, we decided to do a deep dive into the history and culture of Basque berets, and found more than we bargained for.
A soft, round, cloth cap, often worn slightly askew, the beret is a signature hat that has long served multiple purposes, equally at home in high fashion and on a fishing dock. Though they later came to be popularized all over Europe, and indeed the world, berets are Basque in origin. The french term for the headgear is béret basque, and in Germany they refer to them as Baskenmützen. Even the Finnish respect the origins of the Beret, naming the hat baskeri.
In our opinion, the most iconic use of the beret lies in its origins. A fisherman in a beret has long been an icon of sailing fashion, rugged yet refined style. This is no coincidence. The lineage of this pairing traces all the way back to the 16th century, when Basque fishermen were the most successful and prolific in all of Europe.
Saddled between Northwestern Spain and Southeastern France, Basque land, and thus its culture, has always been deeply shaped by the ocean. Containing important ports on the Bay of Biscay, fishing and whaling quickly became integral to the Basque economy. Basques were actually among the first people to catch whales commercially, dominating the trade for five centuries. Whaling became so central to Basque culture that several towns and villages in Basque provinces proudly displayed whales and whaling scenes on their coat-of-arms. This practice continued from the 11th into the 17th century.
They were so skilled at whaling and fishing that by the early 17th century, other European nations entering the trade sought mentorship from the Basques. “They were then the other people who understood whaling,” wrote the English explorer Jonas Poole, and the French explorer Samuel de Champlain said of Basque fishermen that they were “the cleverest men at fishing.”
The industry of Basque fishing became invaluable to the European economy, particularly for Catholics. Basque mariners became especially good at catching and storing cod, a fish that has a bizarrely important place in Catholic history. Since Catholics cannot eat meat on Fridays, the 40 days of lent, and many saints’ days, fish is an important part of their diet. Due to its lack of fat, salted cod lasted longer than nearly any other fish that European Catholics had access to. The result? For many Catholics who lived far from the coast, cheap cod sourced from Basque fishermen was the only protein source that they could eat on Holy days.
This enormous hunger for cod combined with a growing market for whale oil created a massive demand for Basque fishing services. Overtime Basqu fishermen were forced to sail further and further away from the Iberian Peninsula in search of plentiful fish and whales. Soon this search took them all away across the entire Atlantic ocean. Basque fishermen suddenly found themselves in a New World.
As early as the 16th century, historians speculate that Basque fishermen made their way down the Atlantic Coast of North America, exploring Newfoundland and Labrador, and possibly even venturing all the way down to Massachusetts. This was well before the British ever settled in New England. The Basques went on to control fishing along the Northeast Coast of North America for over a century.
And if Basque fishermen were in America five-hundred years ago, it stands to reason that they brought berets with them. And they definitely looked great. So we’re not saying that the beret is the quintessential American hat, predating any other fashionable headwear later to be developed in the United States… but we’re not not saying that either.