Millinery and Interesting Facts in the 1700 and 1800s

Head coverings have been with us since the time of man. Initially, they were seen as utilitarian because they offered protection from nature’s harsh elements or an enemy’s weapon. Some of the first headwear to be depicted was found in cave paintings at Lussac-les-Chateaux in Central France that dates to 15,000 BC. The next headwear to be depicted was skull-caps. These were followed by the Phrygian caps worn by freed slaves in Greece and Rome, which eventually became known as “Liberty Caps” during the French Revolution. In the sixteenth century, woman’s hats at last attained structure, and, by the seventeenth century, women everywhere began to clamor for millinery. This resulted in the idea of millinery fashion, with women’s hats becoming extremely popular during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

millinery facts

Young Ladies’ Hat, December 1896, Author’s Collection

In the 1700 and 1800s all sorts of women could found wearing hats, bonnets, or caps. In fact, Jane Austen and her sister wore caps well before most women of their age wore them. Madame Tussaud was always nearly always seen with a bonnet on her head. Because millinery was so popular during the eighteenth and nineteenth century there are many questions related to hats and their popularity. Here are few.

Where Does the Word Millinery Come From?
The word millinery comes from Milan, Italy. Importers and dealers, known as “mileners” or “milaners,” sold trimmings and other accessories, and, until the nineteenth century, they also sold collars, fichus, neck ties, bonnets, hats, caps, and so forth.

Stuart Bonnet of 1864. Author’s collection.

What is the Difference Between Women’s Caps, Bonnets and Hats?
Caps were always brimless, had crowns that fit close to the head, and were usually designed for warmth. People generally used the word bonnet when describing a brimless style made from soft materials. In addition, bonnets, unlike hats, usually tied underneath the chin, and bonnets tended to frame the face with their wide, semicircular ruffles and decorative trimmings. Hats of the 1700 and 1800s were highly decorated, created from various fabrics or straw, and came in numerous styles from turbans to toques and from capotes to open crowns or rounds.

The fashion of birds in Victorian Times. Author’s collection.

Why was “Mad as a Hatter” Applied to Hat Makers?
Mercury began being used by the French in the 1600s. It was a toxic solution that turned fur into felt, and due to poor ventilation in workshops, workers breathed in the mercury fumes and felt fluff, which built up in their bodies. Eventually, hatters began to display unusual symptoms. These symptoms included dizziness, tremors, irritability, mental confusion, and poor memory. By the Victorian Era, these symptoms were proverbial and called “hatter’s shakes,” “Danbury shakes,” and “mad hatter disease,” and, of course, Victorians also used the ever popular phrase, “Mad as a Hatter.” 

What Items Have Been Used to Decorate Women’s Hats?
Around 1865, women began wearing insects on their hats. One fashion journal reported, “Little insects of all kinds, especially flies, are good wear in bonnets.”[1] Besides flies, “little insects” included dragonflies, ladybugs, and bees. Insects were also added or perched among flowers to make them appear more natural. However, some of the more unusual items used to decorate hats appeared in the late 1800s (although headdresses from the late 1700s were just as imaginative.)

Millinery - Young lady's felt hat

Young lady’s felt hat, November 1896. Author’s collection.

Besides insects, Victorians used a variety of items they could acquire from nature. Owl heads and full stuffed bird bodies, such as Baltimore orioles, humming birds, blue jays, robins, bluebirds, woodpeckers, and even prairie hens were used. Feathers were also used as they were considered a status symbol.

Decorating hats did not stop with birds or feathers. Animals, such as  mice or small reptiles were also put atop them, and many hats did not sport just a single item. For instance, a hat might contain an owl head, ostrich plumes, sparrow wings, multiple tufts of flowers or ribbons, and still accommodated four or five warblers.

Why Were Women Warned Against Wearing Veils?
In the late 1800s, there was a belief by physicians and eye doctors that damage could occur to a woman’s eyes if she wore a veil. For that reason many doctors advised against wearing them. However, doctors warnings did not deter women. According to The House and Home, women continued to wear veils for two reasons: First, “a veil is becoming and keeps the hair in order.”[2] So, doctors suggested that if women had to wear veils they should wear “plain tulles and net … [which] are always pleasant to wear, [and are] better for the eyes than the coarser meshes.”[3]

Vivid-Colored hat with veil, June 1899, Author’s collection.

How Did Ostrich Farms End Up in America in the 1800s?
In the late 1800s, ostrich feathers were in high demand with most ostrich feathers being expensive to import and coming primarily from Africa. American entrepreneurs decided they could make money selling ostrich feathers and imported some ostriches, with only one in ten ostriches surviving the voyage to America. Entrepreneurs then established ostrich farms in Southern California to deal with the increasing demand for feathers. However, the farms quickly became more than fashionable feather distributors. People were so interested in seeing live ostriches, paying tourists were driven by the hundreds to visit farms, which in turn encouraged more ostrich farms to spring up.

Who Created the Feather Fashion Put Atop Hats?
Craftsmen, known as plumassiers, created art forms using feathers. They dyed, manipulated, and arranged feathers into tufts, aigrettes, and sprays. Plumassiers were few and far between because in Paris at the end of the eighteenth century there were only 25. As the demand for feathers in millinery grew, more people became plumassiers, and fortunes were spent on exotic feathered hats. The Victorian (1837-1901) and Edwardian (1901-1910) periods were the high times for these feather creations made by plumassiers.

What Was The Importance of Ribbon in Caps and Bonnets?
In the early nineteenth century, no frugal family would have wasted money on frivolities such as ribbon. Frugal families used ribbons strictly for utilitarian purpose because they were expensive. Therefore, women who used ribbons for decorative purposes were usually wealthy.

millinery - the dinner bonnet

Dinner bonnet of the 1830s. Author’s collection.

How did 3-Story or Flowerpot Hats Get Their Name?
In the late eighteenth century, tall women’s riding hats became fashionable. The style was soon copied by men. As with all things, the tall riding hats eventually fell out of fashion, but in the late 1880s, tall hats were back in vogue, a revival of the earlier style. These tall hats then became known as “3-story” or “flowerpots” because “they soared atop the hair, appearing as if a roof on the tower of a building.”[4]

What is the “Portrait” Hat?
Georgiana Cavendish, the Duchess of Devonshire, was a fashionista in England in her time, just like in France, Madame Récamier, Josephine de Beauharnais, and Madame Tallien were known as the merveilleuses and set the tone for fashion there. When Thomas Gainsborough was commissioned to paint the Duchess in 1783, Georgiana decided to don a hat she created herself. The hat was black and oversized and she added a profusion of feathers to it. Later, when her portrait was hung at the Royal Academy, it created a fashion sensation among women, and, women ran to their milliners demanding the “portrait” hat.

Millinery - The "Portrait" Hat, Courtesy of Wikipedia

The “Portrait” hat. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Who was Skittles and How Did She Affect Hat Fashions?
Skittles was the queen of the Victorian courtesan named Catherine Walters. She also had a great sense of style and created a fashion sensation in the 1860s that was as big as the one created by Georgiana in the 1780s. Skittles and the other Victorian courtesans were known to their clients as “the pretty horse-breakers.” These “horse-breakers” congregated regularly at the Achilles statue in Hyde Park, which was a famous riding area known as Rotten Row. One day, Skittles appeared wearing a snappy riding bowler. Women loved the look and even the most respectable of women copied her bowler creating a bowler fad among women.

Millinery - ladies' round straw hat

Ladies’ round straw hat, March 1897. Author’s collection.

How Significant were Hats to Fashion in the Late 1800s?
The House and Home — published in 1896 and complied by Lyman Abbott — contained a section devoted to hats and summed up their importance stating:

“A witty man recently defined a bonnet as a thing made partly of ribbon and partly of lace, but principally of price … and yet, ask any discerning woman whether a French bonnet is worth its price or not and mark her unhesitating answer. She knows that the value of the article lies not 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 the bonnet a work of art, as distinct from a mere unrelated mass of flowers, and lace, and ribbon.”[5]

Why Did Feathers Fall Out of Fashion in Hats?
Feathers were so fashionable in women’s millinery that it resulted in mass bird slaughters. These slaughters became so common William T. Hornaday, an American zoologist and conservationist, claimed:

“No unprotected bird is safe. The humming-birds of Brazil, the egrets of the world at large, the rare birds of paradise, the toucan, the eagle, the condor and the emu, all are being exterminated to swell the annual profits of the millinery trade.”[6]

The American woman’s fashion magazine, Harper’s Bazaar, decried the same thing. They reported in 1897, “should [there] be an owl or ostrich left with a single feather apiece hardly seems possible.”[7] Their statements were justified: It has been estimated that in 1886 alone five million birds were slaughtered just for millinery feathers.

At the height of these outlandish slaughters some people began to take action. In 1886, the National Audubon Society was formed in Massachusetts and Pennsylvania to preserve and protect fowl. More importantly, Henry Ford seems to have been instrumental in putting a stop to large fashionable hats and the use of feathers. Once he introduced the car, people found themselves buzzing around at break-neck speeds and that caused fashionable hats to be ruined or blown off women’s heads. Additionally, enclosed vehicles allowed no room for any oversized structures, and, as hats became smaller, the need for large items — feathers, birds, and small animals — disappeared.

Henry Ford's First Horseless Carriage - The Quadricycle, Courtesy of Wikipedia

Henry Ford’s first horseless carriage – The Quadricycle. Courtesy of Wikipedia.


  • [1] A History of English Dress from the Saxon Period to the Present Day, 1892, Vol. 2, p. 261.
  • [2] Abbott, Lyman, The House and Home: A Practical Book, 1896, p. 229.
  • [3] Ibid.
  • [4] History of Hats for Women, 19 March 2015.
  • [5] Abbott, Lyman, p. 218.
  • [6] United States Congressional Serial Set, Issue 6497, p. 5315.
  • [7] Harper’s Bazaar, Volume 30, 1897, p. 1002, – Harper’s Bazaar, Volume 30, 1897, p. 1002.

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