Bonnets were one of the most popular types of headgear during the nineteenth century. They were worn for numerous occasions from social events to dinner parties to evening carriage rides. However, bonnets of the 1830s were not just pretty headgear or fashionable displays for women’s heads. They were also considered the only proper headgear when going outdoors. That was because bonnets protected women from nature’s harsh elements, such as the sun, wind, or cold.trimmings. They also functioned as fashion statements and were created from satin, silk, tulle, velvet, wool, and straw and decorated with ribbons, lace, crepe, flowers, and an occasional feather.
If you have ever wondered what the difference is between a bonnet and a hat, people generally use the word bonnet when describing styles made from soft materials that are brimless. Bonnets also tied underneath the chin whereas hats do not. Bonnets of the 1830s had those characteristics but they also tended to frame the face with their wide, semicircular brims and decorative
An interesting side note related to feathers is that during the end of the nineteenth century bird hunting became such a popular sport and feathers so fashionable in women’s headgear, mass slaughters of birds was a common thing. These slaughters resulted in the founding of the National Audubon Society, which was formed in Massachusetts and Pennsylvania in 1886 to preserve and protect fowl. Fortunately, feathers were not one of the interior trims, even though bonnet interiors were as ornate as the outside. Interior trims usually consisted of netting, lace, ribbons, and ruching, and bonnet interiors were often as profusely and extravagantly trimmed as its outside. Moreover, to add a reflective glow and brighten a woman’s complexion, sometimes pink fabrics was used to line bonnet.
To demonstrate some of the styles of the bonnets of the 1830s, here are three different bonnets. The first bonnet pictured is a Dinner bonnet. Note that it has a round shape and that the caul is ornamented by twisted rouleaus of shaded ribbon. The border is lightly turned up in front but descends at the sides and then rounds in the back. As was customary during this period, the trimmings, which in this case are live flowers, were placed low on either side and blond lappets were used to complete the trimming.
The second bonnet is a Social party bonnet and made from tulle. It would have been worn in warm weather, and, as you can see, it fits close to the head. It was decorated with alternating rows of ruching and damask roses that covered the front. This fashionable bonnet also has a wide, long yellow ribbon at the back. This is interesting because in the nineteenth century, ribbon that was used strictly for decorative purposes would have indicated a family was wealthy as no frugal family would have wasted money on such frivolities when they served no purpose other than ornamentation. Furthermore, because bonnets styles often stayed in style for decades, frugal women made their bonnets new each season: They changed the trimmings, redid the lining, and added new ribbons or flowers.
The last bonnet is the Evening bonnet. It is made with blond lace and the caul also uses blond lace and is ornamented with double fichus drapery. The front is covered with a wreath of ribbon and flowers that terminate in a large tuft at each corner and rich blond lappets descend on either side.
Queen Victoria came to power in 1837 and after her accession the bonnet that women wore had a wide brim that was not as large as the earlier bonnets of the 1830s. In addition, the crown was shaped more like a cone with the top removed and it was set at an angle to the brim. Bonnets of straw, silk, and velvet embraced this shape. In addition, there was another shape, known as the drawn bonnet. This bonnet involved a framework of cane or wire that created a horseshoe shape at the crown.
Another change to the bonnet began in 1838. It was the cottage bonnet. This bonnet style had been around between the 1800 and 1810s but fell by the wayside after La Bell Assemblée reported in 1810 that although cottage bonnets were “simple and becoming,” their popularity and extensive adoption by women made them no longer a fashion statement. The 1830s version of the cottage bonnet involved a continuous straight line that formed the brim and crown.