From Che Guevara to the Black Panthers, it’s been an eternal symbol of revolution and counterculture. Now the beret is back as a symbol of black power, with activists and celebrities donning the soft-round hat for interviews and photoshoots.
As Black History Month began this week, Ashley Banjo from the dance troupe Diversity gave his first interview after the group’s Black Lives Matter-inspired Britain’s Got Talent routine to British GQ in a tightly pulled beret. Adwoa Aboah wore one on the cover of British Vogue’s September issue, standing next to the footballer Marcus Rashford as part of the Activism Now special. And Lovecraft Country’s Jonathan Majors was photographed in a beret for American GQ’s October issue.
According to fashion shopping platform Lyst searches for the hat are up by 41% week-on-week.
“The beret is iconic within the Black Panther movement and was worn as a sign of revolution,” explains Angelo Mitakos, the stylist who created Banjo’s look for the shoot. “We wanted to do justice to a powerful group of activists and by wearing the beret we felt there was a subtle nod.” In the photos, Banjo is wearing signet rings from Johnny Nelson featuring the faces of the civil rights activists Harriet Tubman and Martin Luther King. “It felt only right that we gave a nod to the Black Panther movement for the change they have brought to the modern world,” he says.
The black power beret gained a new lease of life at the 2016 Super Bowl, where Beyoncé performed Formation in an X formation (in tribute to Malcolm X) with dancers matching custom-made Zana Bayne harnesses, Dr Martens boots, leather two-pieces and berets on their afros to create a powerful all-black look that was a comment on sisterhood and black power.
Carol Tulloch, a professor of dress, diaspora and transnationalism at University of Arts London, likens Beyoncé’s use of berets to a form of sampling, “drawing on potent historical and meaningful references”, which have “contributed to the long pursuit of civil and human rights … or black Americans”.
Key to this was the Black Panthers movement. In the film Judas and the Black Messiah, expected to be released next year, Daniel Kaluuya wears one playing Fred Hampton, the chairman of the Black Panthers party.
After Che Guevara, the beret has been primarily associated with the Panthers. “Bobby Seale has said that he and Huey Newton, the co-founder of the Black Panther party, were inspired to wear berets as part of their uniform after watching a film where members of the world war two French Resistance wore a beret”, says Tulloch.
In The Black Panthers: Photographs by Stephen Shames, Seale says he talked Newton into taking what he was wearing – a black sports-style leather jacket, black slacks and a blue shirt – and turning it into the uniform for Black Panther party members. Topped off with a beret, Tulloch says its strong messaging “helped to create what Seale called ‘good visuals’ to ‘capture the imagination of the people’”.
But the good visuals weren’t confined to the panthers. “It filtered into the Guardian Angels, the Puerto Ricans in the late 70s who wore the berets in the colour red as they policed the New York subways,” says Karen Binns, a native New Yorker and director of Fashion Roundtable. The commonality of these moments to the beret’s message now is that it “represents a strong, united front”, says Binns.