Hats & Bonnets

Victorian Hats & Bonnets

Hats became popular through out the mid 19th century, and as all fashions do, started with the youngsters and teens. But as time went on and the hairstyles changed, hats became fashionable for women of all ages. One thing to keep in mind when discussing hats, as their popularity grew, etiquette was enforced as to where and when to wear them. A "hat" was not worn to church, a funeral, mourning, or other formal occasions. A "hat" was considered "casual" attire and was used for shopping, visiting and outings.

Hats and bonnets were adorned with a wide variety of decorations. Flowers were the main attraction, made of paper, ribbons, or live flowers were added after being dipped and dried in paraffin wax. Feathers became another major accessory to hats and in the late 19th century the National Audubon Society was formed to protect and preserve this countries fowl and bird populations. "Follow me lads" were another form of decoration. These long streamers from the back of the hat were started, again, as a "youngsters" decoration. It is said that the fluttering of these wispy streamers from the back of a young lady's hat were to encourage a courtship with a young man. An attracted beau would follow the young lady home and ask the father if a courtship could be started. But soon women of all ages were attracted to the long streamers of silk or lace and they were found on many established married women's hats as well.

Bonnets continued in popularity and were worn as an "all weather" accessory. Bonnets were silk, felt, wool and straw. It is said that a woman who wore a bonnet adorned with long wide ribbons showed wealth. The longer the ribbons the wealthier the family. This meant that the family had the money to waste on such frivolity as long unused ribbons, for these end ribbons were not used to hold the bonnet in place, but purely for accent. Feathers, flowers, ribbon work and crepe were also used for decoration. The bonnet went from a high and outrageous "spoon" bonnet, to a closer, lower cottage bonnet (although we still see the spoon bonnet being worn during the 1860's).

An article written in Arthur's Home Magazine in 1863 talks of the conflict that many women had over wearing a hat vs. a bonnet. This is a clear example of why we can not rule out married women wearing and owning hats in the 1860's, as has been previously argued in the past.

"Becomingly Dressed"

"That the majority of women prefer being fashionably to becomingly dressed, is a fact that the universal wearing of high bonnets has tended firmly to establish; and it is an extraordinary one, since the majority of women are, at the same time well aware that the eyes of those they dress to gladden invariably prefer the " becoming" to the "fashionable."

Every woman is—or, if she isn't, she ought to be—fond of being well dressed, and desirous of looking at all times and seasons as well as Nature will allow her to look. It is not only justifiable, but absolutely right and praiseworthy that the aid of art should be called in to assist in obtaining the desirable result. It is unjustifiable, wrong, and reprehensible to a degree, that art should be so frequently distorted, and the result, when achieved, so abominably bad.

About a year and a half ago somebody, in an evil hour, decreed that gaunt high bonnets should be the fashion, and forthwith every feminine face had to be framed in one, or to bravely bear those crushing epithets, "dowdy" and "antique," which were sure to be uttered with respect to the courageous one by irreverend younger sisters with round faces, and milliners desirous of disposing of their lengthy goods.

To give it Its due, the high bonnet does suit one face in twenty; it suits around face, whose breadth can not only bear, but requires toning down; it suits that rarest shape of all, a low-brewed, delicate oval—that shape where the oval is formed by the head arching resolutely immediately above the Rat brow—that shape, in fact, that we see in profusion in marble, and meet with in real life about once in ten years. But a long face it causes to resemble a horse's, and imparts that appearance which is so essentially disagreeable, of there being as much lady above the shoulders as below. But the intelligent reader will agree with me in declaring that it is always the longest-faced women who have gone to the height of fashion, and the greatest length as regards bonnets.

Color-blindness must (judging by the toilettes one unfortunately can't avoid seeing) be a much commoner thing than it is generally supposed to be. In a crowd—in a fashionable richly dressed crowd—every other woman has some error in the color of her costume (unless she's in deep mourning) which can only be excused by charitably supposing her to be afflicted with color-blindness.

How persistently some pretty women disregard the claims their hair and complexions have on them. How often we see a brilliant brunette, with deep eyes, and deep, clear crimson roses in her cheeks, arrayed in mauve or violet. How perpetually our sense of the beautiful is jarred against by the vision of a young lady, with a saffron hue in her complexion, attired in green, because the green is lovely. This new color, biche, has bean the means of bringing out decidedly the fact of many faces that were described before as between dark and fair—rather inclining to blonde, in fact—being unmistakably fawn-colored.

What is that law of Nature which rules that fat women shall insert themselves either into something painfully tight or absurdly voluminous? They always scorn the medium—the fullest of "Girabaldis" in the morning and the most compressing of velvet tiny jackets or vests at night. Nothing between, nothing that would conceal a little without being puffy in itself.

Again. Why do laths—long flat women, with a yard and a half between their ears and the edges of their shoulders—wear garments that give them an appearance of still greater longitude, in their utter absence of trimming on the body and sleeves? And why do they make that aforesaid journey from the ears to the shoulders still more terribly long and plain for the eyes of beholders, by "doing their hair" up high, and leaving all of the throat visible.

Fur has been more worn this winter than it has for many seasons, and the thickest, most enlarging fur has been usually placed upon shoulders already meritorious in their size. Fur that would render a sylph portly, if draped about her in the accustomed tippet form, is sure to be selected out of many other kinds by the broadest backed dowager who chances first to see it.

There are many piquant paletôts in vogue now, and many elegant mantles, and these are severally made in the richest and most beautiful materials; but after all, a woman, if graceful in herself, is never so becomingly or gracefully dressed for either carriage or walking, as when wrapped in a large shawl.

It must be large—no possible arrangement can small shawl look well; but provided it is large, and its wearer knows how to walk under its folds, are purer and finer than those of any other form of outside covering. The thing that makes the wearing of shawls a failure, as a rule, with English and American women is, that they imagine the great and only point to be the getting them—and keeping them with—the point symmetrically in the middle behind. This is a mistake; the shawl is the most freely flowing of all drapery—the most manageable of all drapery—if only the wearer knows how to manage it; therefore anything like stiffness should be abstained from in both its adjustment and subsequent arrangement.

What pretty hats the milliners have devised. Velvet hats, half Spanish, half Henry the Third, with just a clash of the sugar loaf or brigand in them; and the Prince of Wales's plume in the most airy of snowy feathers in the front. Round, drooping, flat-brimmed, we have them now of every shape, of every texture, and almost of every color. All faces may be suited, if only judgment is used; hats are in themselves so pretty that it is a hard struggle to get very far wrong with one. The worst and most frequent mistake made with respect to hats, is that of putting one suited to a child of tiny proportions and tender years, on the top of a visage that has expanded through a series of many moons into the semblance of a full one.

In conclusion, we cannot think a lady becomingly dressed when she is bound in leather, and studded with steel nails like a portmanteau."

Arthur’s Home Magazine, April, 1863, pages 251-252