In modern times we often think of bonnets as little cloth hats worn by babies. But during the 1800s women commonly wore bonnets, and the styles changed with each decade. The first bonnets were worn in the Middle Ages, when the Church required that women cover their hair. At that time in France, any hat that was not a hood was called a “bonnet.” Later, Americans and Europeans defined a bonnet as a hat with a long brim that shields the face.

Early Bonnet Styles

In the 1700s parasols went out of style and women turned to the bonnet to shield themselves from the sun and wind. During this time, women’s hairstyles were so large and elaborate that they needed a special bonnet to protect them. The calash bonnet was a collapsible hood made of silk cloth and wood or whalebone hoops. At the end of the 1700s elaborate hair went out of fashion and women wore simple bonnets inspired by cotton imported from India.

American Innovation

During the early 1800s, Napoleon’s political actions affected the straw trade with Italy, so fashionable straw bonnets were very costly. These styles influenced Betsey Metcalf, a 12 year old American girl, to make her own straw bonnet. She used materials from around her family’s farm. The American straw hat industry took off as Betsey taught others. Manufacturers realized this was a good business opportunity and the American straw hat industry began to thrive.

Mid-Century Styles

Bonnets were most fashionable during the first half of the 19th century. They evolved from hiding most of a woman’s head to showing it well. In the 1830s and 1840s, large bonnets hid the wearer’s face and hair. At that time it was considered inappropriate for women to show the backs of their necks during the day. Women of the 1850s solved this problem by wearing smaller bonnets with a ruffle on the back. Later in this decade the “wide awake” came into fashion. This bonnet had a wide brim and small crown that fully showed the wearer’s face.

Bonnets for Work and Modesty

During the 1860s parasols came back into style and fashionable women began wearing hats instead of bonnets. In the second half of the 19th century, bonnets were associated with outdoor work or with modesty. Poke bonnets were commonly worn during this time. These are the cloth or straw bonnets that pioneer women wore as they worked or traveled. Quaker women also wore simple, well-made poke bonnets. By the time the 20th century began, most women did not wear bonnets and instead chose to don wide brimmed hats.