Bonnets – Before the Easter Parade
With Easter almost upon us, Irving Berlin has us singing “In your Easter bonnet, with all the frills upon it, You'll be the grandest lady in the Easter Parade.” But our interest is in early bonnets, so let’s see what we can learn about them.
A “bonnet” originally referred to men’s headwear. For instance, Shakespeare refers to men’s bonnets in multiple plays. In the early part of the eighteenth century, a nobleman’s bonnet was large and frilly made of lace or velvet. Women have been wearing hats ever since the Middle Ages when the church decreed that a women’s hair must be covered - but they were not called bonnets until the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.
Women’s headgear began to really take shape during the seventeenth century. Shepherdess’ hats, which were wide, flat straw hats with varying brim sizes, were popular throughout most of the 18th century. In the 1770’s, the calash folding hood was popular since it could accommodate the large wigs and hairstyles popular at the time. These collapsible bonnets were made of strips of wood or whalebone sewn into channels of a silk hood with a front ribbon that tied to secure it from blowing off in the wind.
During the early nineteenth century, bonnets became the mush-have fashion accessory for women. Typically made by milliners, these bonnets were very large with many ribbons, flowers, feathers and gauze trimming. Although many of the basic bonnet hat shapes stayed in vogue for a decade or more, women changed the trimmings nearly every season, adding new linings, ribbons, and flowers to their old bonnet frames. Straw hats were imported from Italy In large numbers, but women in New England mastered the straw hat braiding and often it is impossible to distinguish ones made in America from those imported from Italy. A June 1870 fashion article from Lady's Friend Magazine had this to say about bonnets:
"Most fashions come in mildly, and gradually increase in extravagance, through extremes being thought stylish, and leaders of fashion increasing their measures to out vie one another, "till the force of fancy, can no farther go," and the whole thing becomes absurd…. Not so with bonnets. The bonnet was born old -that is huge and ugly, and wrinkled, and fantastical- and has grown younger and younger into its pretty insignificance and youthful grace."
By the 1860’s hats were reintroduced into fashion as the parasol became popular and the traditional large brims of the bonnet were no longer necessary to keep the sun off a woman’s face. By the end of the nineteenth century, the bonnet was relegated to history.
Search for hats and bonnets on Dig Antiques.
Here are a few interesting online and book references on samplers:
- History of Bonnets, Lady's Friend Magazine, Vol. VII, No 6, June 1870, pp. 405-408 (reproduced on The Costume Gallery website)
- The History of Women's Hats, Vintage Fashion Guild.
- Bonnets at Old Sturbridge Village, Fashion 1800 from 2010 exhibit at Old Sturbridge Village.
- Fashionable Hat Styles of the Regency, The Jane Austen Centre.
- Vintage Hats & Bonnets 1770-1970 Second Edition, Susan Langley, Collector Books, March 2009.