The Bonnet: An Unlikely Revolutionary

When you hear the term “bonnet”, the Oregon Trail may come to mind. It is true that the pioneering women of the 1840s and 1850s sported utilitarian cotton sunbonnets to protect their faces from the harsh sun and wind. However, the American prairie sunbonnet actually stems from a greater revolutionary history that swept through Victorian England and into America during the mid-1800s.


Fashionable headwear changed dramatically in the late 1780s when the French Revolution brought democratic styles to the forefront and turned fashion away from large hats and hairstyles that had previously been the style for upper echelons of society. It was no longer de rigeur to display wealth, and as the idea of democratic government swept through Europe, elite styles were outmoded, and common everyday materials and utilitarian styles were in. With the introduction of readily available cotton and the influence of English-occupied India, turbans and plain cotton bonnets with ornamental ribbons became the fashion du jour and remained popular into the 19th century.


By the Victorian era, bonnets had grown larger and more ornate, beginning with straw bonnets, which became all the rage in 1810. Intricate straw bonnets were replaced by colorful fabric bonnets of velvet, silk, and cotton constructed on large bonnet boards. When Queen Victoria ascended the throne in 1837, bonnets had grown much deeper and were used in conjunction with a veil to protect the wearer from the sun and from the public eye. The modesty politics of the era were reflected in the deep and concealing nature of the bonnets, many of which included a ribbon at the back to prevent the neck from being exposed. This did not prevent designers from adding more and more ornamentation in the form of feathers, ribbons, silk bows, and even flowers. In the 1860s, when parasols came into style, the brim of the bonnet was reduced in size, and bonnets became smaller, less concealing, and more ornamental.


Although the bonnet faded in the 1860s as hats came back into fashion, the bonnet has continued to convey revolutionary social ideas through fashion. Recently, Vera Wang’s 2018 Spring lineup featured deep black bonnets, in reference to the popular and politically divisive adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. In 2019, Christian Dior presented bonnets and fishnet veils to accentuate the purposeful androgyny of his Spring-Summer 2019 fashions. All this goes to show that while the bonnet may not be the front-and-center trend it was in the Victorian era, it’s revolutionary roots still manifest in today’s style.