There were remarkable transformations in the style of women’s hats from the 1700s to the 1800s. The hat changed to match empires, dynasties, and ages, but it did not take on a fashionable turn until the mid-1700s. It was at that time that women made popular the shepherdess hat, a wide-brimmed, shallow-crowned straw hats, known as a bergère. They were usually stiff crowned hats, made from straw, and tied under the chin. These hats had been worn since the early 1700s but took on a fashionable bent between the 1750s and 1760s.
Rising hairstyles soon caused many of these hats to tilt forward to accommodate the popular hairstyles. As hairstyles became larger and larger, hats styles became smaller and smaller until they were discarded altogether for a time. However, extremely large hats were soon introduced and sometimes completely covered the high coiffures. It was also around this time that the word “bonnet” began to take on the its modern connotation and began to describe a variety of new hats.
As with all fashions, for a time headdresses and hat styles became radical. By the end of the 1770s and the early 1780s, headdresses became monstrous. Hats also reached colossal proportions and were worn on formidable angles to accommodate the curls, plaits, and frizzed hair beneath them. One famous eye-popping hat from this period was the “portrait” or “picture hat,” a hat Georgina Cavendish, better known as the Duchess of Devonshire, created and wore when Thomas Gainsborough painted her in 1785.
Hats also began to be named for events, characteristics, or cities. For instance, The Lady’s Magazine in May 1775, provided a list of all sorts of popular hats at the time: “The City Hat,” “The St. James’,” “The Ranelagh,” “Macaroni,” “Otaheite,” “The Skimming-dish Hat,” and “The Calash.” The French also began naming their hats after American cities, with the “Philadelphia” and the “Boston” being two of the more popular ones.
After Italian Vincenzo Lunardi’s balloon ascent, the “Lunardi” or “balloon” hat became popular. Another popular balloon hat was the Chapeau à la Montgolfier after the ballooning Montgolfier brothers. Balloon hats were created from gauze or silk and had large puffed crowns with wide brims to match. Although the name of the hat (Lunardi or balloon) lasted a couple of years, the hat remained popular until about 1790.
From about 1785, hair was combed low and bonnets were worn high with the styles of the times retaining similarities to the previously radical and towering hairstyles. It was also around this time Marie Antoinette originated the fashion of big curls at the side of the head with the remainder of the hair fashioned into a chignon at the back.
After the revolution began and guillotine was used, women sometimes cut their hair short around the neck to represent those who were beheaded. Apparently, the condemned were ordered to have their hair cut before their execution and the style on the street was fashionable enough to take the gruesome name of “Guillotine Coiffure.” There was also the coiffure à la Titus of the bals des victimes (victims’ balls), which reputedly took place after the Reign of Terror and was popular with women.
The bergère from previous years remained fashionable. However, it had a smaller brim. Before the end of Louis XVI’s reign in 1792, women’s hat began to be tall in style similar to the man’s stove-pipe top hat of the late 1800s. This style, shown below, was high enough to require mechanical contrivances to secure them in place. Besides their high crowns, these women’s hats also had broad brims and were often garnished with floral decorations.
Starting in 1795, women’s fashions began to follow the classical ideals of the Greeks and the Romans, and it extended to hairstyles as well. Curls were worn over the forehead and ears, and loose buns or knots were created at the back of the head. When Napoleon Bonaparte began to reign in 1804, the variety of women’s hats was bewildering. One of the most unusual hats at this time was a huge bonnet with an enormous visor — stiffened from whalebone or wire — and tied securely under the chin. Large feather plumes often garnished these large visor hats and cascaded over them. Additionally, a woman’s hair was worn in a Grecian style: cut short, curled, and tied in the back with velvet bands.
In the 1800s, for the first time women sometimes left home without a hat. This happened even though millinery was still popular. Among some of the fashionable pieces at the time was the turban, which was particularly popular with Madame Récamier‘s good friend, Madame de Staël, who is shown below wearing a turban in 1813.
Besides Madame de Staël’s fashionable turban, the Highland or Greek helmet was also popular. In 1810, of all the styles, the helmet style was the favorite because it was simple and tended to have an extraordinarily long visor. It was also popular because it had many variations and was often ornamented and bedecked with feathers, ribbons, and trims.
By the 1830s, the Ladies’ Museum noted, “hats have increased in size; the brims are very deep and extremely wide, the crowns are of moderate height in front, and very low behind.” Hats at this time were either straw hats (Leghorns) or created from stiffly starched cotton. These hats were tied under the chin and the outside was often a different color from the inside. They were also sometimes covered with satin or silk, often had sweeping curves, and tended towards botanical embellishments as noted by one fashion magazine:
“Wild flowers, particularly daisies, are much in favour, as are also bouquets of violets; but nothing is considered more elegant than branches of lilac, placed in the same style as feathers, that is to say, to droop from the right side to the left.”
Straw hats remained popular into the 1840s but were worn primarily with informal wear. Women’s hat styles of the 1850s were created from velvet or felt and richly trimmed with huge bows that were frequently secured in place by flowers, pins, or buckles.
Moving into the Romantic Era (1837-1850) or the Victorian Era (1837-1901), bonnets were in fashion and women’s hats were out. However, around 1857 young women began to wear hats with informal wear, and, by the 1860s, hats began to replace bonnets. High crowned hats with turned up brims came back into fashion in the early 1870s, and hats in general were tilted forward or towards the rear of the head, depending on the hat and hairstyle.
Around the 1870s women’s hats began to feature feathers, wings, and sometimes whole birds. One style of women’s hats was called “The Mercury” and featured wings as its main ornament. It was made from felt or velvet, sometime sported flowers, and sat well back on the head to show a woman’s hairstyle to its best advantage.
About 15 years later in the mid-1880s, as a general rule, women’s hats began to have mesh veils of spotted net, gauze, or tulle. These veils often helped secure the hat in place. Certain physicians did not approve of this spotted net covering. Apparently, they believed it would damage a woman’s eyes. That did not stop women from wearing them because they liked the look, claimed it was becoming, and maintained it kept their hairdos in place.
Another popular hat in the 1890s was known as an Alsatian bonnet. It was a simple style that consisted of nothing more than a large bow (and sometimes fur ornaments) attached to a bonnet too small to be seen.
Over the course of 150 years, garnishment and ornamentation was as varied as women’s hat sizes. Ribbons and bows gave way to feathers and eventually to whole birds. Owl heads and full stuffed bird bodies, such as Baltimore orioles, hummingbirds, blue jays, rollers, bluebirds, woodpeckers, and even prairie hens were used, but it did not stop there. Animals, such as mice or small reptiles were also put atop hats, and many hats did not just sport just a single item. Sometimes they were covered with an owl head, ostrich plumes, sparrow wings, multiple tufts of flowers or ribbons, and four or five warblers.
Decorating women’s hats with birds eventually reached a point that bird populations were decimated, and this resulted in an outcry and action to stop bird slaughters. Yet, no matter the fashion and whether birds or not were placed atop millinery, women loved their hats. This was why one witty man in 1896 gave the following definition, “[A] bonnet as a thing made partly of ribbon and partly of lace, but principally of price.” Women objected that a hat was much more and they considered their hats to be invaluable:
“[A hat’s value does not lie] in the value of the frame or the ribbon or the flowers, but in that indefinable something called ‘the style,’ that stamp of distinction, which [makes their hat a prized] work of art.”
-  The Ladies’ Museum, Vol. 31, 1830, p. 355.
-  Ibid.
-  Abbott, Lyman, The House and Home: A Practical Book, 1896, p. 218.
-  Ibid.