Hats Off to the Bonnet
So far in the Hats Off series I have only talked about men’s hats. This is probably because I personally prefer to wear the styles that are meant for gents, but the ladies of the steam era were all be-hatted as well. For much of the 19th century, if a lady only owned one type of hat, it was going to be a bonnet.
Starting in the late 1700s, “house bonnets” made of a soft material, such as cotton, were always worn by women in their homes. They sometimes has decorative ribbon, but for the most part they were simple garments meant to conceal the hair. Hats were sometimes worn out of the house with the bonnet underneath, but in general large hats were out of fashion in all of Western Europe because of the more “democratic” styles adopted by the French after the Revolution.
Within a few years of the turn of the 19th century, straw bonnets had become the norm for women. These replaced the “shepherdess” hats of the previous century, which also had wide brims to protect one’s complexion from sun exposure, but were softer and slouchier than crisp bonnets. Instead of straw, bonnets were also sometimes made from a special process of pressing cardboard, and these were known as board bonnets. They were less expensive than straw hats, and at the time much of the hat straw industry was located in french-controlled Egypt. This was in the thick of the Napoleanic Wars (1803-1815), so trade with France was greatly reduced during this period. Another alternative to straw was buckram, which is a type of linen, and these were sometimes covered with silk.
By the 1830s, bonnets had gotten really big. The brims would usually completely cover a woman’s profile, and many of them also had veils to hide her features from the front. Straw was again widely available, and the “coal-scuttle” style, so named because it resembled a bucket, was all the rage. This brim expansion was both to protect the wearer from the sun in the days before parasols were fashionable, and from prying eyes. It also effectively put blinders on her, as she could not see to the left or right without turning her head.
Over the next few decades, the brim began to retreat, but bonnets continued to cover all of the hair and much of the profile. In the middle of the century, another feature called the “Bavolet” was added, which was made of ribbon or frilly fabrics and covered the neck (widely considered an erogenous zone at this time).
Around the 1850s, women’s hats began to shrink in a large part due to the prevalence of parasols, which took over the job of keeping away freckles. So stay tuned for more about hats for both ladies and gents as this series continues.