History of the Beret
Military forces have worn distinctive uniform items for centuries to create a psychological advantage and boost their esprit de corps, but the military use of berets is a relatively recent phenomenon, said Walter Bradford, an Army historian who has studied the issue.
Scottish Highland troops wore a "bonnet" in the 17th and 18th centuries, while the headgear most people now know as the beret was worn in the Basque region of France and Spain in the same period, Bradford said.
But widespread use of the beret among Western armies didn't begin until the 20th century, when French tank crews in World War I wore both the small Basque version and a larger, floppier variety.
In the 1920s, British tank crews began searching for an alternative to their stiff khaki service-dress cap, which just wasn't practical for duty inside the relatively new armored vehicles.
"The cap had to be worn backwards to use the gunner's sights, with the chin strap down to keep it on the head," Bradford said. "The light wool serge fabric soon became home for grease stains as it was clutched and adjusted by soiled fingers."
In 1924, the tankers came up with a black wool beret whose size fell in between the two French versions and was bound with black leather featuring an adjustable ribbon that ran around to tie in the back.
When the British tankers added their traditional "Fear Naught" emblem above the left eye, they had a snappy piece of headgear that quickly became famous for its distinctiveness and grew to be the symbol of armored formations around the world, Bradford said.
The military popularity of berets soared during the World War II era when various British units donned the headgear in several colors, including a khaki brown variety adopted by Special Air Services troops and a maroon variety worn by Britain's first airborne force, the Parachute Regiment, that became affectionately known as the "cherry berry."
Legend has it that the color was picked by novelist Daphne du Maurier, wife of Maj. Gen. Frederick Browning, one of Britain's highly decorated World War II heroes, Bradford said.
Berets debut in U.S. military
The first use of the modern beret in the U.S. military was in 1943, when a battalion of the 509th Parachute Infantry was given maroon berets by their British counterparts for their service in the war.
In 1951, the Marine Corps experimented with green and blue berets, but dismissed them because they looked too "foreign" and "feminine," Bradford said.
The first widespread use of the headgear by U.S. forces came shortly after, when a new Army organization that was specially trained for insurgency and counterguerrilla warfare began wearing a green variety in 1953. It took another eight years for the Army's Special Forces - the "Green Berets" - to win presidential approval from John F. Kennedy to make their headgear official.
In the 1970s, Army policy allowed local commanders to encourage morale-enhancing uniform distinctions, and the use of berets boomed. Armor personnel at Fort Knox, Ky., wore the traditional British black beret, while U.S. armored cavalry regiments in Germany wore the black beret with a red and white oval.
Troops of the 82nd Airborne Division at Fort Bragg, N.C., started wearing the maroon beret in 1973, while at Fort Campbell, Ky., the trend exploded, with post personnel wearing red, military police donning light green, and the 101st Airborne Division taking light blue as their color. In Alaska, the 172nd Infantry Brigade began using an olive green beret.
In 1975, the Airborne Rangers got approval from the Department of the Army to use the black beret as their official headgear.
Over the next few years, the whole thing got out of hand, and in 1979 senior Army officials put on the brakes, Bradford said. The leadership allowed the Rangers to keep their black berets and in 1980, agreed to allow airborne troops to continue wearing the maroon version. But all others varieties were declared off-limits.
These days, the United States is on the low end of the spectrum among NATO allies in terms of the variety of berets worn by their military forces.
Turkey, Greece and Luxembourg also authorize only three colors for various segments of their forces, but most countries have four or five. Belgium has seven and the United Kingdom tops the list with nine.
On Oct. 17, Chief of Staff Gen. Eric Shinseki announced that the black beret would become standard Army headgear next year. Shinseki said he wants to use the sense of pride that the beret has long represented to the Rangers to foster an attitude of excellence among the entire Army as it moves forward with its sweeping transformation effort to a lighter, more deployable, more agile force.
His decision has set off a firestorm in both the active-duty and veteran Ranger community as well as in the Army's other two special operations camps, the Special Forces and the airborne.
On Oct. 20, Sgt. Maj. of the Army Jack Tilley said Airborne Rangers might receive headgear of a different color when the entire Army dons the Rangers' traditional black beret next June.