The calash bonnet (known in France as the thérèse or caleche) was a popular and intriguing millinery item in the mid-1700s and was worn through the early 1800s. It came about because it protected the towering hairstyles from inclement weather and allowed for decency. Because it tied under the chin, it was considered more of bonnet than a hat. On the tall calash versions, ribbons were attached to the brim to allow wearers to draw it up as required. Thus, it operated similar to the collapsible top found on the carriage by the same name. One description of how the calash bonnet operated was provided by Englishman Thomas Wright:
“[The] calash was formed like the hood of a carriage, and was strengthened with whalebone hoops [or cane hoops] … so that by means of a string in front, connected with the hoops, it could be either be drawn forwards over the face, or it might be thrown backwards over the hair.”
Another person describing the calash bonnet wrote:
“How shall I describe the immense bonnet, or immenser calash, or the space required to enable the wearer to take a sidelong observation! The ribbon lines by which the calash was turned right or left, as the case required, seemed to my unpracticed eye like the reins by which horses were guided, and in my innocent greenness I supposed that they were only worn by those who were too poor to have horses, and were used to obtain an insight into the science of land navigation.”
The unusual looking bonnet became popular because it offered certain advantages that other millinery did not. For instance, it could easily collapse or raise as the wearer required. Another advantage was that it provided good protection in inclement weather so that if a woman encounter wind, rain, or sun, the calash bonnet could be raised to protect her hairstyle and face.
The colors, shape, and popularity of the calash changed over time. At first it was only made from green silk and usually lined with red or pink silk, supposedly to improve a person’s complexion. Later, it came in many different colors, which historian Elisabeth McClellan noted:
“[It] was usually formed of green silk, it was worn abroad covering the head, but when in rooms it could fall back in folds like the springs of a calash or gigtop; to keep it over the head it was drawn up by a cord always held in the hands of the wearer. When the calash was at the height of popularity however, it appeared in many varieties of material and colour.”
The eighteenth-century calash bonnet was tall and almost oval in shape but as hairstyles changed, later versions of it (those in the nineteenth century) were rounder and shorter to match the nineteenth century hairstyles. Its popularity also steadily decreased after the eighteenth century as hairstyles fell. However, it did enjoy a short resurgence in popularity between the 1830s to the 1850s.
There seems to be some questions as to who was responsible for first making the calash fashionable in 1765. Some people attribute this honor to the Duchess of Devonshire, but others claim it was introduced by the Duchess of Bedford. No matter who was responsible for the calash bonnet, fashionable women such as Marie Antoinette, the Princesse de Lamballe, or Eliza de Feuillide could be found wearing it at one time or another.
There was also at least one ode to the popular calash bonnet in 1775:
- “Hail! Great Calash! o’erwhelming veil,
- By all-indulgent Heaven,
- To sallow nymphs and maidens stale
- In sportive kindness given.
- Safe hid beneath they circling sphere,
- Unseen by moral eyes,
- The mingled heap of grease and hair
- And wood and powder lies.
- From the bald head should pad and tête
- And loads of horsehair fall,
- Calash will hold it all.”
There are also some interesting drawings of the calash from the 1800s, as shown:
Titled “Drawn by Miss Calash 1778,” the following eighteenth-century print shows a woman standing in profile, wearing an immense calash that extends from her waist to above her head. She has drawn it up with a cord.
The following hand-colored mezzotint was published in 1780 and shows a young woman wearing her calash bonnet drawn up so as to protect her hair.
Another hand-colored mezzotint, also from 1780 again shows the calash is drawn up over a towering eighteenth-century hairstyle.
Finally, there are two calashes from the Gallerie des Modes et Costumes Français. One is defined as an ordinary calash and the other as an upturned one covering a hedgehog hairstyle.
-  Wright, Thomas, England Under the House Hanover, (London, 1848), p. 364.
-  The Ladies’ Repository, Volume 14, (Cincinnati, 1854) p. 255.
-  McClellan, Elisabeth, Historic Dress in America, 1607-1800, (Philadelphia: 1904), p. 222, 225.
-  The Pall Mall Magazine, Volume 1, (London: 1893) p. 692.