The Calash Bonnet

Calash Bonnet: Large Calash of 1770, 1770s, with Fan-shaped Pleating and Ribbons on Either Side
Large calash of 1770s, with fan-shaped pleating and ribbons on either side. Courtesy of liveauctioneers.com.

The calash bonnet (known in France as the thérèse or caleche) was a popular and intriguing millinery item in the mid-1700s and were worn through the early 1800s. It came about because it protected the towering hairstyles that were popular at the time from inclement weather and it 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 the wearer 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 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.”[1]

Another person describing the calash 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.”[2]

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 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 one historian 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.”[3]

The eighteenth-century calash was tall and almost oval in shape. However, 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. However, it did enjoy a short resurgence in popularity between the 1830s to the 1850s.

A Green Silk Calash, 1790, Courtesy of Metropolitan Museum
A green silk calash, 1790, Courtesy of Metropolitan Museum.

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, there was at least one ode to it from 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.”[4]

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.

“Drawn by Miss Calash 1778.” Courtesy of British Museum.

The following hand-colored mezzotint was published in 1780 and shows a young woman wearing her calash drawn up so as to protect her hair.

“Miss Calash in Contemplation.” Courtesy of Lewis Walpole Library.

Another hand-colored mezzotint, also from 1780 again shows the calash is drawn up over a towering eighteenth-century hairstyle.  

"The spruce sportsman, or, Beauty the best shot," Example of a Calash 1780, Courtesy of Lewis Walpole
“The spruce sportsman, or, Beauty the best shot,” Courtesy of Lewis Walpole.

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.

La Caleche ordinaire (left) and Hèrisson couvert d’une Caleche retroussèe (right). Courtesy of Museum Fine Arts Boston.

References:

  • [1] Wright, Thomas, England Under the House Hanover, (London, 1848), p. 364.
  • [2] The Ladies’ Repository, Volume 14, (Cincinnati, 1854) p. 255.
  • [3] McClellan, Elisabeth, Historic Dress in America, 1607-1800, (Philadelphia: 1904), p. 222, 225.
  • [4] The Pall Mall Magazine, Volume 1, (London: 1893) p. 692.

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