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.

The Capelet: An Undying Victorian Trend

The capelet is defined as “a short cape, usually just covering the shoulders”. While the definition may be simple and straightforward, the capelet has a complex and diverse history that stretches from prehistoric times all the way to today’s hottest runway fashion. 

Prehistoric Cloaks and Capes

The capelet is a variant of the cloak, which has been around throughout human history. The original cloaks were large cuts of cloth with a hole in the middle, for the head, much like a poncho. Other early cloaks included a round piece of cloth, worn over the shoulders and fastened at the neck. Over the centuries, cloaks evolved into various forms among multiple cultures, including early Native Americans, Scots, Arabs, and Romans. The ancient Romans further developed the garment to denote a person’s rank by color, fabric, and cut of the cloak, and the trend spread throughout the Roman Empire and the world. The cloak became a standard part of the English costume in the 1800s as a red hooded cloak called a “Scarlet”. Come the Renaissance, people began wearing elaborate embroidered cloaks that grew shorter and more varied as fashion dictated.

Advent of the Capelet

Enter the capelet or maletot, a fashionable short version of the cape adapted by Victorian women as an alternative to the shawl. The Victorian era saw extensive use of shawls of various lengths, styles, and materials to accent and cover bulky Victorian dresses. A shorter cape, with a stylish collar, the capelet was a tailored marriage of the outdated longer capes and the less weather-resistant shawls that were so popular at the time. While coats became standard wear for men in the 1800s, Victorian women continued to wear and develop different styles of cloaks and shawls well into the 1900s.

The Capelet Today

In the 1900s, women began wearing the more useful and modern coats, but capes and capelets never completely lost their allure. Re-imagined versions continuously reappeared throughout the 20th century. The style can be seen in the mantle cloaks of the 1930s, and in the 50s and 60s, stoles and short capes were worn by fashion icons Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis and Marilyn Monroe. Even more recent fashion trends indicate a renewed interest in capes, cloaks, and capelets, and major fashion designers such as Marc Jacobs, Heidi Slimane, and Oscar de la Renta have even rolled them out on the 2019 fall runway. The capelet may have been a Victorian trend, but it looks like this style is here to stay.

Sources: Unabridged. Accessed 18 August 2019.

Pauline Weston Thomas. “Cloak Fashion History 3 – Edwardian Cape – Drawings 1890 to 1915”. Accessed 18 August 2019.

Pauline Weston Thomas. “Cloak Fashion History 4 – Line Drawings of Cloak Styles After 1900”. Accessed 18 August 2019.

Buck, A. (1961). Victorian costume and costume accessories. New York, N.Y.: T. Nelson & Sons. Accessed 18 August 2019.

“Cloak – Facts and History of Cloak”. History of Clothing. 2019. Accessed 18 August 2019.

Justine Carreon. “A Complete Guide to the Top Trends of Fall 2019”. Elle. 9 August 2019. Accessed 18 August 2019.