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History of Bonnets During Queen Victoria's Reign

Historical Bonnets of Queen Victoria's Reign

Historical Bonnets of Queen Victoria's Reign (top to bottom, left to right): 1838, 1843, 1851, 1852, 1856, 1861, 1865, 1871, 1878, and 1888.

At first glance it might appear impossible for bonnets to have a historical interest; but, if we investigate the subject with a little care, we shall find a decided history attaching itself to bonnets and hats, and one that also typifies the times.

The bonnets (taken as a whole) of the earlier part of Queen Victoria's reign may be classified as fundamentally unattractive, following the conventional lines of that period in which the entire costume lacks artistic beauty.

We can trace this unattractiveness generally in the architecture and art of the present reign up to the time when the Esthetic movement began; this, with all its exaggeration, has brought much beauty to our homes, and, —may we add? —to our heads also.

A revival is now beginning of those beautiful lines and shapes gloried in by Sir Joshua Reynolds and his contemporaries, which have not seen the light in our century.

About the beginning of our Queen's reign, we find that slavish imitation of Parisian fashions first adopted which has such a stunted ideality and originality in our English millinery artists.

This may be attributed to one of two causes.

  1. The reaction, from the licentiousness of the previous reigns, showed itself in the costumes of the new period and taken in conjunction with the sobriety of our Queen's taste, extinguished all power of originating beautiful head-gear.
  2. The brilliant society of Paris was being led, and its fashion molded, by the beautiful Duchesse d’Orleans, and after her, by the exquisitely tasteful Empress Eugenie; and it is in the fashion periodical of this date, 1837, that we find the "Paris letter" laying down its dictum as to what was, and what was not to be worn. In La Belle Assemblée of 1839, a lady, writing from Paris, says " the shapes are decidedly not pretty, but small; they set off the face and form a round shape instead of being close at the sides;" and yet, in spite of this frank confession of ugliness, the open shape was generally adopted. C'est la mode was as rigid a law fifty years ago as it was up to a short time since.

Now, thanks to the Esthetic Movement which is producing and nourishing independence of idea, both in the beauty of form and of color, we are venturing to revive the old picturesque shapes of the last century, in spite of what may be la mode in Paris.

A glance at the accompanying illustrations (above) will give our readers a bright idea of the great sameness of style, and the want of ideality is painfully apparent.

At no period of history were pretty heads so entirely disguised as they were in what was called the "poke" bonnet. It was not considered the proper thing for any part of the profile to be seen; in an old novel it is mentioned sarcastically "that a certain lady's Wellingtonian nose actually showed beyond her bonnet;"—for in 1837 it was correct for the face to be invisible; the width of the brims was generally enormous; feathers and bows were heaped on the crown and the hair inside the brim.

These bonnets were miracles of the fine art of sewing, being often entirely made of finely-drawn silk or muslin.

Curtains to the bonnets were also de rigueur, and very long veils were worn which were gracefully looped over the side of the bonnet, and often fastened to the waist- belt.

The curtain had become such a necessity to a modest-minded woman that when first they began to go out of fashion, as part of the bonnet, little curtains were attached to the hair.

In 1840 bonnets became shorter at the back, but the faces remained hidden. What was nick-named the " coal-scuttle " was the fashion, made in finely-drawn silk and satin.

No significant change took place until 1852 when the ears were first left exposed again, and the "coiffure Marie Stuart" is read of in the World of Fashion for February, "adorned with a branch of cerise velvet grapes," and the strings of wide cerise-colored ribbon. This is an example of " French simplicity."

To coiffeur-well, a term of which the Parisians are very proud, does not only mean that your bonnet looks well; it has a fuller meaning, it implies that comfortable grip on the head which is so necessary to a woman's comfort; it means that you and your head-gear are one, and will not part company with the first gust of wind you meet.

The reason that French bonnets are, as a rule, more comfortable than English ones, is that the most careful attention is paid to this point; and this comfort can only be attained in houses where the shapes are made for each head, and where the girls are trained to the various lines of making shapes—they all dislike it, and all try to avoid it, just as children dislike playing scales.

In some houses, alas many in London, shapes are bought by the dozen and trimmed, and hence that cry of discomfort we so often hear, "My bonnet keeps slipping off."

We all know the painful aspect of the poor lady who, struggling along in the face of the wind, tries vainly to keep her bonnet on by pressing her chin down to her chest.

She dares not look up; possibly, this fundamental difference in the comfort of French and English bonnets has had much to do with the preference for the former.

In a thorough knowledge of this work consists of the difference between the amateur and the artist. To make a bonnet well at home is difficult, for it rarely is that anyone can be found who will teach this part of the art. Many people will and can teach, as in all other branches of artistic work, a merely superficial part; but in these crucial points lies the whole secret.

There is one difficulty to contend with in these days of imitations, and that is the rush for cheap goods; it is an absolute impossibility to copy a gorgeous piece of work, be it a bonnet, or picture, or house, except in the same material.

Here is one constant ground of contention between buyer and seller; the former often desire precisely the same effect, sometimes at less than half the price, while the seller, alas, knows that cheap materials cannot produce the desired resemblance.

An excellent old French proverb says, Pour faire une bonne omelette il faut des bons ceufs (To make a good omelet you need good eggs), and this might well be applied to bonnets.

If people would be content with pretty, yet simple bonnets, they could always have them cheap; but, alas, no, they must and do insist on cheap imitations of Parisian goods. It may be asked, why do English milliners copy in this manner?

The answer is almost self-evident: The English milliner is not a director of public taste, she has to make what will take, and the demand is for French designs and Parisian fashions.

She cannot or does not try in some instances to arrange her establishment for the production of real French work by bringing over competent French artists, but contents herself and defrauds the middle-class public by selling bad imitations.

All good work is expensive; if "the laborer is worthy of his hire, he can always get it." There is always work for the competent worker; it is only the incompetent who lacks work in the millinery, as in all other markets. Our method of training is wrong, and hence the reason for the continual demand for French workers in the English work-rooms.

On the practical side of the question, homemade bonnets can be made both prettily and cheaply if people will be content to follow their ideas, and not make bad copies.

A little fresh tulle with a bouquet of flowers always looks well; or a simple straw shape, with a bunch of spring flowers and narrow black velvet strings, is also in thoroughly good taste.

However, when the amateur tries to arrange a towering mass of feathers and flowers, she comes to signal grief.

All quantities of trimming require an artist's hand to arrange them. The excellent point for an amateur to aim at is simplicity. Overloading is as much the fault of the amateur milliner in material as of the amateur painter in color.

The putting on of the strings and placing them at the right angle is usually the stumbling block to the unskilled worker. Moreover, here we may give a useful hint that the significant point is, not to get the strings too far back. Place them as near the widest part of the head as possible, without cutting it too short.

This is a complicated matter to arrange well, but a little careful attention will soon show the worker how to do it. The chief aim should be to get the beauty of outline. Neither have the bonnets shrouding all the attraction of the head, as in the early part of Queen Victoria's reign, nor flying off at an acute angle.

Let us revive without exaggeration the old beautiful forms which belong to us and let us borrow from the French that thoroughness of work, that fundamental knowledge, which has so long given them prestige in England. With such a combination of form and practice, the future of our headgear should furnish a more picturesque history than that of our immediate past.

One point, we would add, requires careful consideration from those women who propose entering a business life. Business is too hard a master to be lightly dealt with, for, like the Hydra-headed monster, when once face to face with it, and in its clutches, you must vanquish it, or you will be ignominiously defeated.

"Look before you leap" is a well-worn proverb, and though there is a splendid and successful career open to hard-working and earnest-minded women in various trades, still there are many difficulties to be overcome, and many self-denials required of those who intend to be successful in business.

Cooper-Oakley, Isarel (Madame Isabel), “History of the Bonnets of Queen Victoria's Reign,” in The Woman’s World, Cassell & Company, Limited, London, Paris, New York & Melbourne, Volume I, No. 11, September 1888, p.506, 508-509.

Note: We have edited this text to correct grammatical errors and improve word choice to clarify the article for today’s readers. Changes made are typically minor, and we often left passive text “as is.” Those who need to quote the article directly should verify any changes by reviewing the original material.

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