Last summer I had quite a fun time exploring how the straw hat went from an accessory used mostly by laborers to a shabby chic accessory still enjoyed today. I discovered that bonnets have a similar history, although they started out being used to protect hair while working, were extremely chic for a century or so, and then returned to accessories worn by laboring women in the American frontier.
When they were chic, they were extremely chic, with multiple styles coming and going from the 1700s to 1900. Let’s take a look at four different types used in the 18th-19th centuries and what made each unique. Can you tell them apart?
The calash bonnet was a piece of tailoring brilliance born out of the desire that so many Western women in the 1700s had to wear their hair as large as possible. As the hair styles grew, hats became more difficult to wear, yet it was important to cover the head for modesty reasons, and also to protect the magnificent hair constructions from weather. More public gatherings were taking place, in fact it could be said that this era was the beginning of the famous socialite. Because people were venturing out more and more, coverings were often necessary to maintain a look and protect it from snow or a drizzle.
I find this bonnet so clever. It was made using a collapsable frame, allowing for easy storage but also allowing the large structure to rest slightly above the hair rather than resting on it, damaging the style. It was, in fact, named for the collapsable carriage covering used in France at the time. Says the Metropolitan Museum of Art: “The name “calash” is derived from “calèche,” the hood of a “French carriage,” because the material was ruched along a collapsible cane support structure, much like the hood of a carriage.”
I am a bit surprised that this bonnet completely disappeared after hairstyles retreated back toward the top of the head. The bonnet itself would remain a fashion staple for many years and certainly, size was no concern when it came to hats. Remember the Merry Widow?
For whatever reason, the calash isn’t seen much after the beginning of the 1800s and the demise of the climbing pouf.
Do you notice that they are mostly green? Apparently green was originally the standard color for this collapsable cap, though despite much searching I have not yet been able to learn why.
The poke bonnet is perhaps the most well-known of my selection of bonnets, though it remained in fashion only for a few decades, from the early 1800s to 1850 at the latest. It was a staple of Regency fashion and paired well with the popular empire waist dresses of the time. While they have always been mocked for their over-the-top nature, they were practical for the time given the popularity for spending time outdoors and the desire women had to keep their faces covered.
Poke bonnets almost always tied to the side of the chin.
All images of the poke bonnets are from the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Coal scuttle bonnet
The coal scuttle bonnet came into vogue around the time that the poke bonnet was peaking in popularity, and remained on the scene for at least a decade after as trends leaned toward smaller hats.
Coal scuttle bonnets were stiff, wide-brimmed, and flat in the back. They were named after a coal scuttle, a handled container used to scoop coal. Do you think there is a resemblance?
Some mistake a coal scuttle bonnet for a poke bonnet or believe that they are the same thing, but this is not the case. Wikipedia in fact points out the difference, stating: “It may be very similar in design to the poke bonnet – some sources use the terms interchangeably – however the poke shape had a wide and rounded front brim that extended beyond the face…”
And as you will also see, the coal scuttle does have a much flatter back than the poke.
The coal scuttle typically had a strap, though there was a time in the later mid-1800s when strapless styles were made.
Bonnets worn by girls and women in Frontier America took the styles of the previously mentioned bonnets and made them fully functional. That’s what I call pioneer spirit!
Wide-brimmed hats were even more necessary for those living on the frontier because of all of the time spent in the sun. Not only would a woman want to protect her face, it would have simply been too uncomfortable to be outside during the day without one. As someone who loves throwing on a baseball cap all summer long I can understand this!
Besides the functionality of the wide brim, a pioneer bonnet covered the entire back of the head and often extended down over the neck to protect the neck from sun and dust. And of course, the strap was essential given the elements and lifestyle.
The materials used to create prairie bonnets were different from the rest of the bonnets in this post for possibly obvious reasons. The bonnets would have had to withstand a lot of time exposed to dust and dirt, making previous materials silly. And then there was the issue of access to fabrics. Bonnets would have been made of whatever a family could find, and often leftover scraps from other household items would have been used.
What is your favorite type of bonnet?
Start your own collection
19th Century Black Velvet Bonnet
More accessory history through time
Victorian and Edwardian neckwear
A short history of the hand muff
Pioneer Clothing: Accessories Women Wore on the Frontier
Thank you so much for reading! I am so glad you enjoyed it.
Thanks for collecting and sharing Janice. Was watching Emma and wanted to find out more about the bonnets and there was your great post with images. Thank you!
Try and find a bonnet anymore, much less a milner.
Fascinating history! So interesting! Thank you for your research.
Could you please explain what a squeeze bonnet was ! Reading Dickens and I can’t find a definition ?
I love the straw lace and ribbon bonnet!