Let me start off by saying, I’m not a fan of berets, at least not in the way some of the military uses them. They’re hot, impractical, but if you’ve endured the rigors to earn one, I think they not only look great, but they add a lot of esprit de corps to organizations with unique missions. Certainly if you've busted your ass to earn one (Rangers, Special Forces, to name a few) they are pretty bad ass and hard-earned. But using them as the primary head gear with the Army Service Uniform, for me, not so much.
I didn’t like the decision in 2001 for the Army to make berets the primary head gear, but I saluted smartly, did what I was told and moved out. Years later, I often cringe when I see some berets and how they are being worn. A lot of soldiers get it right and you can tell that effort has been applied to ensure the headgear looks good. There is a certain pride reflected, but then there are others who look like they just walked away from an oven baking baguettes. They look like Rusty atop the Eiffel Tower.
With that in mind, here are some tips to help you form your new beret, no matter what branch you are in.
- First off, if your beret comes with a liner, cut that liner out. Not only will it make you hotter as you wear the beret, but it will also interfere with forming the beret. Cut the liner out carefully along the band, ensuring you do not damage the leather band that goes around your head. And of course, ensure you do not cut the beret itself.
- Once you’ve gotten your liner off, take a fabric shaver and run it over the inside and outside of the beret. If you don’t have a fabric shaver, buy one, they are a good, affordable investment in your uniform and appearance. If you are old school, take an unused shaving razor (disposable razors are great for this) and shave your beret as carefully as you would your face or legs. You can remove the fuzz with any kind of tape. Keep shaving the beret until very little fuzz is removed.
- Now the fun begins. Immerse your beret into water (not hot water as it will shrink it), keeping the flash as dry as you can. Carefully roll the beret and then gently wring it out without turning it too tightly to damage the beret.
- The beret will still be pretty wet, but put it on your head and adjust the fit. This is likely a good time to adjust the cords that stick out of the back of the beret. How the beret is shaped will be up to you, but most people like the flash to be very pronounced, and the beret is pulled to the right side forming what is almost a 90-degree angle with the fabric. You will pull on the fabric until it stretches to where you want it. The beret should touch your right ear or extend below the top of the ear. If you don’t have a mannequin head to use, keep your beret on your head for a while. Watch a movie or your favorite sport and remove it carefully once it starts to dry and form.
- Some individuals like to trim or modify the cardboard in front of the beret. I’ve never done that, but if you really want your beret to look highspeed, low drag, you might consider it. It is important to ensure the cardboard in the beret’s front is over your left eye. Once the beret is formed and dry, now you can trim your headband cords. Some folks just remove them altogether (that’s what I did) while others tie a square knot and then trim the cords tightly into the headband.
On average, it can take a few days to get a “wearable” beret, but really, it takes a few weeks and even months to get them worn and broken in the way you want them. You may need to perform this process several times before you get it just right.
Steve Alvarez is the author of Selling War A Critical Look at the Military's PR Machine published by Potomac Books.