April blog: Easter bunnies or bonnets?

An 18th century hat from the Killerton costume collection.

The brighter, warmer days of Spring have always been the time for a traditional clear out and a good excuse for a new outfit.

In the past, whether or not you could afford a brand new costume, a bonnet could be given a facelift with a new trimming of ribbon and flowers.

Straw was the material of choice for summer wear.  Men and women of all classes wore straw hats and bonnets at all times of year, whether working in the fields, sitting by the sea or promenading on the lawn of a country mansion.

The Killerton collection can inspire your own seasonal confection with a huge range of hats and bonnets dating from the mid-18th century to the 1970s.

All change for summer

This almost flat, plate like headgear is often referred to as a shepherdess hat.  Surviving hats are made from straw, paper and silk decorated in a variety of materials. Some are very elaborately trimmed with lace, net and ribbons. They were popular from the 1730s onwards.

The earliest example of a woman’s hat in the Killerton collections is in this style.  Made of pale blue silk on a straw foundation, the hat is ornamented with hand-made net and silk flower buds. Although a little of the decoration has been lost over time, fragments of the original silk ribbon ties are still attached. The frail hat was remounted on a new straw base by a textile conservator in 1982.

An 18th century hat from the Killerton costume collection.
An 18th century hat from the Killerton costume collection.

A cottage bonnet

Samuel Woodforde’s (1763-1817) portrait of Maria Palmer Acland), Lady Hoare (d. 1845 hangs in the drawing room at Killerton).  Painted in about 1794, it shows a fashionable young mother and her son in a rural setting.  

To complete her summer outfit of white muslin Maria wears a small bonnet tied with a scarf over the crown to secure it, possibly made of chip (fine shavings of willow bark). Simple small chip hats or straw ‘cottage’ bonnets lined with muslin or worn over frilled lace caps remained popular for everyday wear into the mid-19th century.

Portrait of Maria Palmer Acland
Portrait of Maria Palmer Acland

Buttons and bows

The finest wheat-straw plait was imported from Italy, the best from Livorno, or Leghorn as it was known. These were expensive, but England also had its own straw plait industry in Bedfordshire and Buckinghamshire. Dunstable straws sold well, but were less hard-wearing than Tuscan straw plait.

Jane Austen often refers to trimming bonnets in her novels and letters. Here, Lydia Bennet rather full of herself following a trip to London, says

" Look here, I have bought this bonnet. I do not think it is very pretty; but I thought I might as well buy it as not. I shall pull it to pieces as soon as I get home, and see if I can make it up any better.’ And when her sisters abused it as ugly, she added, with perfect unconcern, ‘Oh! But there were two or three much uglier in the shop; and when I have bought some prettier-coloured satin to trim it with fresh, I think it will be very tolerable.'"
- Pride and Prejudice, 1813

An Easter wedding

This tiny wedding bonnet was worn by Sarah Ann Cowell on her marriage to John Stevens Kernick 123 years ago, on Easter Monday, March 26th, 1894. 

The ceremony took place at St Michael and All Angels, Bishopston, Bristol.  

Sarah, at 26, was considered a little too old to wear white. Her chic headdress is little more than a wire frame covered with tiny blue flowers (forget-me-nots) and a large velvet bow.

Cornflower blue was recommended as the ideal shade to flatter most complexions.  I wonder if the rest of Sarah’s outfit matched her bonnet?  Not all brides wore white, even by the 1890s, preferring to invest in the best they could afford, often a gown and accessories that doubled as ‘going away’ dress.

Sarah’s bonnet echoes the smart creations by London milliner Madame Tucker Widgery, who advertises herself as a ‘Court and Artistic Milliner’ in the mid 1890s. Widgery’s upmarket New Bond Street shop offers Spring bonnets trimmed with flowers, feathers, lace and ribbon.  Prices begin at 10/9 (55p, worth about £33 now) for a modest coarse straw trimmed with flowers and ribbon, to 25/9 for Spring blossoms under the crown ‘nestling softly on the hair’, ostrich plumes, ribbons and lace.

Wedding bonnet worn by Sarah Ann Cowell
Wedding bonnet worn by Sarah Ann Cowell

Which is your favourite? Whichever you choose, have a very happy Easter!

Killerton's collection

Find photographs and details of thousands of items, from dress patterns to ballgowns to underwear and shawls.