The History of the Bonnet

While the bonnet can be used by both sexes, this type of hat has been mostly associated with women’s fashion. But in today’s 21st century, bonnets are most commonly worn by babies, Scottish soldiers, and women belonging to some Christian denominations (such as the Amish and conservative Quakers).

The earliest bonnets (17th to 18th centuries) were typically brimless head coverings that were secured by tying under the chin. They also didn’t provide a covering for the forehead. House bonnets were worn both indoors and outdoors and in accordance to the passage from 1 Corinthians 11 regarding covering the head and modesty. They were also a symbol of womanly subservience and grandeur.

Aside from the Biblical basis, bonnets were also worn for practical reasons. They protected the wearer from the sun and wind and kept dust and flour out of the face and hair while working or kneading dough.

But with women’s hairstyles becoming much more elaborate during the mid-1700s, women began to wear a type of bonnet called calash to protect their overdone coiffures. The calash is a type of bonnet consisting of a hood of silk stiffened with arched frames (either made of whalebone or cane) that were collapsible, just like the hood (also called calash) on top of a carriage.

The bonnet became a standard for women’s 1800s fashion, and milliners (hatmakers) had begun to create more structured and fashionable – and bigger – bonnets. By then, bonnets had become more of a fashion item and less of a practical head covering. The most fashionable bonnets were usually worn by high society women.

a black silk bonnet
A black silk bonnet from around 1815
an illustration showing versions of the poke bonnet
An 1838 Swedish fashion magazine featuring wide brimmed versions of the poke bonnet

A “poke bonnet” (also called Neapolitan bonnet) is a type of women’s bonnet that became in vogue in the 1800s. It consisted of a small crown and a wide and a rounded front brim, usually jutting beyond the wearer’s face. 

The poke bonnet was first mentioned in an 1807 fashion article of the British daily The Times. By the 1830s, more Englishwomen had begun to wear it. More colors and styles were introduced. Because of its wider availability, the respectable middle-class women had also adopted the poke bonnet. The new poke bonnet styles that these middle-class women wore made them look almost no more different than their aristocratic counterparts.

The style of the poke bonnet manifested modesty. It’s little wonder that it found increasing favor during the Victorian era. 

Bonnets remained popular throughout the 19th century. Widows, in particular, would regularly wear bonnets, especially when outdoors or during visits to friends. Married women would also wear caps and bonnets as their show of submission to their husbands.

As parasols and umbrellas became items of choice as protection from the sun, bonnets became smaller and smaller until they could only be secured on the head with hairpins. Hats also came back into style. Also, bonnets had drawn connotations of something that a widow or dowager would wear. Eventually, the bonnet waned in popularity and was only worn as part of prairies or country wear ensembles.

For men – Men’s headgear was originally called “bonnet” until the 1700s when it was replaced by “cap,” and since then, that word has been used more commonly. But in Scotland, the term “bonnet” still refers to headgear, especially military headgear.

As part of religious or worship clothing – Women in some Christian denominations (such as the Amish, Old Order Mennonites, and conservative Quakers) continue to wear bonnets as part of their worship or everyday wear.

For babies – Nowadays, the most common type of bonnet is the bonnet worn by babies. A typical baby bonnet, is made of soft fabric. Like the bonnet that women used to wear, the baby bonnet covers the hair and the ears. However, it doesn’t cover the forehead.