Bonnets and Hats of 1870 in America

There was not necessarily a notable difference between bonnets and hats in the year 1870. This was partially due to coiffures as the hair was generally pulled back and piled high, which caused bonnets to be smaller and to look similar to hats, except for the ribbons tied under their chin. By fall, however, milliners attempted to increase the size of bonnets, but apparently coiffures were so voluminous it was reported, “bonnets can find but very little place upon the head. But, by compensation, they get higher every day.”

February Millinery (Bonnet on left, Hat on Right), Bonnets and Hats

February millinery (bonnet on left, hat on right). Author’s collection.

Another difference between bonnets and hats was where and when they worn. According to Peterson’s Magazine, “whatever may be the form or however elegant the trimming … [hats] are always really neglige, and suitable rather for country than for town wear.” This meant bonnets were considered fashionable for dressy occasions, as well as a wide range of activities from casual to full dress. This also had milliners busily producing bonnets to such a degree, women had little difficulty in finding the right bonnet for the right occasion.

February Millinery (Hat on left, Bonnet on Right), Author's Collection

February millinery (hat on left, bonnet on right). Author’s collection.

Winter bonnets of 1870 started out high in front and were considered “mere diadems of velvet and flowers.” They were so similar in their look to hats that Peterson’s Magazine noted, there were no strings, instead “a scarf veil of gauze or lace [took] their place … [with the] veil [going] round the chin, and … wrapped round the neck.”

Gold ornaments were the popular decorations for winter bonnets. So, when a dressy bonnet was created entirely of black lace, it was brightened along its edges with gold braid or perhaps a gold brooch fastened on one side. February and March also saw bonnets “decorated with quillings of velvet in front in the form of a coronet, and a tuft of velvet flowers at the side … [with the] tuft … changed to match or harmonize with the toilet worn.”

The newest and most coquettish form of the bonnet was introduced in February and called a “Bebe” or “Infanta.” It was described this way:

“a small, soft foundation, a tiny curtain at the back, and a high coronet in front. All round the bonnet some gros grain ribbon is twisted. Sometimes the curtain is replaced by a bow of ribbons, as obviously a desire to return to curtains is not conspicuous.”

New Bonnets for Spring, Author's Collection

New bonnets for spring, Author’s collection.

Spring brought bonnet fashions that continued to retain winter shapes as they were “very small at the back, and very high in front.” Feathers were also in vogue at this time, but as summer approached feathers were replaced by long sprays of flowers. By May, the springtime bonnets had “absolutely changed from a thought of lace, which crossed the top of the head, to almost a veritable bonnet, with a bit of cushion, and something of a crown.” Such bonnets were made high in the front and short at the ears. However, springtime hats did not change as much as bonnets. They were reported to be “little different” from those worn during the previous winter months, as most remained high. Additionally, besides the ever popular and becoming turban, the other hats that remained in vogue were the “Tyrolean, Huguenot, and Hungarian shapes.”

Spring Bonnets and Hat, Author's Collection

Spring bonnets and hat. Author’s collection.

Summer brought a slew of summer bonnets with many of the new bonnets looking back at earlier times. Moreover, supposedly these new fashions of 1870 were “faithful copies of those worn during … [Marie Antoinette’s time as they possessed] a certain grace peculiarly their own.” Among the popular bonnet fashions in 1870 was the “Charlotte Corday” bonnet said to be “precisely the same shape as the celebrated cap of the beautiful Charlotte” and created from black tulle and lace. It was a towering piece with black velvet strings and described as follows:

“[Having a] gather of fullness of black lace covered with white lace over the forehead. A large, black velvet, bow ornament[ed] the bonnet, and either a tuft of cerise roses [was] fastened at the side, or, what [was perhaps] more poetical, [was] a branch of the chestnut-tree in full blossom.”

By July, straw bonnets were different in shape from those worn during the winter. The advantage of the new bonnets were described in the following way:

“[T]hey fit on the back of the head over the braids, and [came] close to the hair in front. They [were] usually trimmed with a narrow pleating of ribbon or tulle on the inside, and … much ornamented with flowers and gauze, or crepe de chene.”

August Hats, Author's Collection

August hats. Author’s collection.

Changes in summer hats were not as obvious at bonnets. However, one change was that hats were turned up on the left side so as to present “a stylish, [but] at the same time jaunty, look.” Trims for hats included gauze, crepe, and black lace. Peterson’s Magazine suggested that Leghorn hats should be worn only by children because they were “unbecoming” to women, and they suggested that if a woman wanted to wear a hat it should be the Chinese Hat as it protected the face and was more becoming. As to decorations the magazine noted:  

“[It] has no crown, only a slight elevation in the center, and is usually trimmed with only a knot of ribbon or velvet, though a small bunch of flowers is sometimes put on the top.”

Some of the other hat fashions for 1870 were the toque, which was worn “slanting very much on the forehead.” There was also the Tyrolese hat that was ornamented with a thick gold torsade (a twisted cord) and a long gold buckle. Finally, there was a cap “of black velvet, ornamented with a large rose … foliage and buds. A scarf-veil of black spotted tulle, folded into a torsade … placed across the visor of the cap … fastened at the side and … loosely tied at the back.”

August Fashions (Bonnet on left, Hat on Right), Author's Collection

August fashions (bonnet on left, hat on right). Author’s collection.

By fall, bonnets were as varied as ever. Some bonnets had “fronts, crowns, and capes.” Others were more unique, with a “female mind of novelty, and in some instances … very coquettish-looking.”  Peterson’s Magazine noted that bonnets “are very pretty when properly made, but almost ludicrous when concocted by inexperienced fingers, as is often the case. The most popular shape resembles a mushroom, with strings over the top to keep it in its place.”  It was also fashionable at this time to have numerous ribbon streamers hanging off the bonnet at the back of the head and in some instance, bonnets also incorporated borders, crowns, and curtains that were placed so far forward, it was claimed:

“They have no longer the appearance of former bonnets, though they have very nearly their shape. Some of them have a border lowered upon the forehead, then a high crown, the hollow part between the border and crown being filled up by a voluminous trimming of ribbons, ruches, feathers, and flowers.”

When winter came, Peterson’s Magazine announced, “Bonnets have decidedly altered in shape since last winter.” The magazine also noted that bonnets were entirely different in style than those seen in spring:

“All through the summer small alterations have crept in, and though there are various modifications of what is called the ‘Marie Antoinette Gipsy,’ all bonnets tend to the gipsy shape. These have suitable crowns, and caps, and strings, tying under the chin. Satin will not be much worn: but velvet will take its place. Two or three shades of the same color will be worn in one bonnet, with tips of feathers shaded to correspond, and a large flower. Black velvet bonnets are trimmed with white plumes, white lace, or pipings, of white satin.” Moreover, it was asserted that with the new shapes of bonnets, not every bonnet was becoming on every face. Some bonnets required the wearer to comb her hair away from her face or to frizz it high enough to fill up the gap between the top of the head and the top of the bonnet. For those women who did not want to do that, they were advised to fill up the space “with a quilling of blond lace.”

Winter Bonnet and Hat Fashions, Author's Collection

Winter bonnet and hat fashions. Author’s collection.


  • Peterson’s Magazine, Vol. LVII, 1870, Philadelphia.

Oh hi there 👋
It’s nice to meet you.

Sign up to receive awesome content in your inbox, every month.

We don’t spam! Read our privacy policy for more info.

Leave a Comment