Bonnet Basics for the 1860s

An indispensable accessory for women of all ages of the mid-Victorian era was a bonnet. Appearing in various styles and fabrics, millinery was an important part of the wardrobe. Though other head coverings such as winter hoods, slat bonnets, or caps were worn in certain instances, the bonnet was demanded for public occasions such as church, shopping, visiting, or traveling. Hats were not the norm in the mid-1800s, being viewed as more casual or for specific occasions such as visiting resorts or the seaside. 

Not a Sunshade

Mid-century bonnets were a fashion item and were not expected to give protection from the elements. They sat on the back of the head and did not shield the face. If protection was deemed necessary in a fashionable setting, a parasol or umbrella was called for. Otherwise, for more informal occasions or work conditions, a large fabric slat bonnet was worn instead.

Godey's Lady's Book 1861
Godey's Lady's Book 1864

Bonnet Styles

Styling fluctuated from year to year to accommodate fashion and hairstyles. 

Early in the 1860s the bonnet was more rounded and had a relatively low brim. As the decade progressed, the bonnet became narrower at the sides and the height grew. 

Godey's Lady's Book 1864

Bonnets were generally silk, velvet or made of straw. A constant feature was the ruff of netting inside the bonnet that framed the face. Trimmings  were usually tacked on in order to be able to remove them easily for new trimmings to update the look of the bonnet. Trims included self-fabric, ribbons, artificial flowers and leaves, artificial fruit, lace, blonde, feathers, and occasionally spun glass. Trims were used on the interior at the brim and exterior of the bonnets. 

La Mode Illustree 1864

How Do You Keep It On?

Godey's Lady's Book 1864
Bonnet ties or ‘strings’ during this era were usually silk ribbon, ranging from approximately 2 inches wide to as much as 8 inches wide. Bonnets usually had two sets of ties - the pretty fashion ties for ornamentation and inner utility ties which were often of plainer ribbon or cotton tape. The utility ties were what actually snugged the bonnet to the head, not the fashion ties. The fashion ties were arranged into a rather large bow directly centered under the chin. 

A bonnet ‘stay’ inside the bonnet balanced the bonnet on the head. The ‘stay’ or ‘cross-band’ was a strip of ribbon, fabric, cording, or even wire, that was tacked inside. It reached approximately from ear to ear. This kept the bonnet balanced on the head and from falling askew. 

Below is a video with a demonstration on how to tie your bonnet strings. 

Every lady in the 1860s would have had a bonnet - so enjoy this fun fashion accessory!


The first cameos were created thousands of years ago in ancient Egypt. They have been a favorite item of jewelry for centuries, though they have waxed and waned in popularity depending on the era. 

Cameos have been carved from a wide variety of materials such as stones, shell, coral, lava, bog oak, Vulanite, ivory, and glass. 

Common subjects are portraits of ladies, soldiers, rulers and scholars, mythology, animals, Biblical events, and landscapes or scenes. 

Worn by both men and women, cameos have been worn set in brooches, earrings, necklaces, rings, bracelets, fobs and pins. 

Cameos may be carved in low relief where the subject barely protrudes from the background, or high relief where the subject projects a great deal from the background. 

Queen Victoria, a world trend setter, loved cameos. Her interest caused cameos to rocket into popularity once again in the mid-1800s. They were in demand as tourist souvenirs as well. Those who made the ‘grand tour’ in Europe often chose a cameo or two from places such as Pompeii or Herculeum. 

Important people also had their portraits made into cameos. According to an advertisement in Godey's Lady's Book in January 1850, “Peabody the celebrated Cameo Portrait Cutter, 140 Chestnut Street, is kept busily engaged with the portraits of some of our most eminent citizens.” 

Victorian Ladies Shoes

Shoes and boots of a golden bronze or black, ornamented with bronze, are becoming fashionable. Toilet slippers are this season more fanciful than ever, being made of red, green, and violet morocco, with heels to match, and ornamented on the toe with velvet bows full three inches long, and wide, in the centre of which are huge buckles of steel, gilt, jet, or variegated.

We see, also, black kid slippers, richly embroidered with jet, and trimmed with black velvet bows with jet buckles. Some of them have red heels. Other slippers have large, square flaps resting on the instep, and made of silks and satins richly quilted. With these shoes white stockings spotted with the same color as the morocco are worn.

For evening dress, though boots are in the ascendant, black satin slippers are the most suitable and becoming, as they reduce the apparent size of the foot. With dress slippers stockings with colored silk clocks should worn.

- Godey’s Lady’s Book, 1862

As you can tell from this short description of fashionable footwear in 1862, shoes came in many designs and colors! Evolving from the flat-soled, very pointed shoes of the Regency era, ladies’ shoes of the mid-Victorian era sported a decidedly square toe or slightly rounded square toe. The look also featured a completely flat leather sole or a small heel of approximately one inch to one-and-a-half inches tall. 

Shoes were slip-ons or could tie. Boots - which were only ankle-high or slightly above the ankle - tied, buttoned, or had elastic gussets so one could slip them on. Boots with gussets sometimes had non-functional, decorative buttons on them. 

The upper portion of shoes and boots could be leather, wool, or silk, and came in many colors or could be dyed to match an ensemble.

 At this time, shoes had straight lasts, which means there was no right or left foot. The shoes would simply conform to one’s feet over time as they were worn. 

Both shoes and boots could be casual for daily wear or dressy for special occasions. Dressier occasions generally called for silk-covered shoes or boots. Footwear could match one’s ensemble or not. 

Hairwork – A Jewelry Fad

Throughout time a lock of hair has been an intimate romantic token, a special keepsake, or even commemorative of important events and deeds. The incorporation of human hair in jewelry seems to have begun sometime during the Middle Ages and continued to increase in popularity through the years. Hairwork art and jewelry reached its zenith during the Victorian era, thanks to Queen Victorian favoring the fashion.  

It is known that when her husband, Prince Albert, passed away, the queen wore a heart-shaped locket containing the prince’s hair over her heart. She also wore a bracelet with nine heart-shaped lockets, each of which contained a lock of hair from her children. She also gave a bracelet made of her own hair to Empress Eugenia of France. Hair generally doesn’t decay so these mementos were seen as lasting sentimental tokens. 

An amazing array of jewelry was made from hair - brooches, bracelets, earrings, necklaces, rings, chains, watch fobs, cravat and shawl pins, and so on. Initially this jewelry seems to have been produced primarily by professionals. However, it eventually was viewed as a proper pastime for Victorian ladies and publications such as Godey’s Lady’s Book and Peterson’s Magazine offered “how to” instructions as early as the 1850s.

An Expandable Bracelet

Hairwork bracelets

Two Types of Hairwork

For both types of hair work, the hair would first be cleaned and treated for a few minutes in a solution such as hot water with ‘borax and soda.’ Once soaked, the hair would then be carefully scraped with a knife to make certain to remove any residue.  

Early hairworks were very tiny, intricate designs created on a flat surface of china or glass called a ‘palette,’ thus, often referred to as ‘palette work.’ The design could be anything from a very elaborate miniature scene or a simply a single curl. If creating a scene, small hair clippings were ground with gum Arabic and painted onto ivory, china, or glass. Each design or picture was quite delicate and, therefore, sealed underneath a crystal cover or placed in a special compartment in a piece of jewelry. Some of the favored motifs were landscapes, weeping willows or tombstones (in mourning scenes), Prince of Wales ‘feathers,’ and basketweave patterns for backgrounds to lay hair designs on. 

Hairwork brooches

These brooches contain no hair. Their basketweave backgrounds
are ready for hair to be inserted into the brooch onto the background.

Later on, around the 1830s, another type of hairwork was developed. Referred to as ‘table work’ hair, it actually involved weaving the hair into lace-like, three-dimensional pieces that were quite springy and stretchy. A special table with a hole in the center was used to create this incredibly intricate jewelry.  The hair was specially prepared, strands were counted, and then wound onto bobbins. The hair was then woven into patterns very similar to the method of making bobbin lace. Specialized fittings were added to the finished piece that allowed the hair jewelry to be worn. 

3D hairwork brooches

Hairwork necklace, necklace pendant, and two sets 
of earrings

Antique hairwork jewelry is now very desirable. You can collect old pieces or you can learn to make your own as Victorian ladies did. 

These rings are matching "sister rings." The hair is inserted on the band.
The original owners had their initials engraved on the inside of the band.

Men's watch chains. 

This ring has hair inserted on the band.

How Do I Keep My Bonnet On?

When I made my first bonnet, I could not keep it upright on my head without lancing it with a very long hat pin. I didn’t like poking a hole in my bonnet every time, but I didn’t know what else to do. I didn’t learn about bonnet stays for several years. Finally, someone told me about a ‘bonnet stay.’ Eureka! 

I made a bonnet stay for my new bonnet and the bonnet sat in its proper upright position on my head without so much as a hiccup! Why had no one told me about this wonderful little item years ago? 

What is a ‘bonnet stay?’ Sometimes referred to as a cross-band or bandeau in mid-1800s writings, it’s just a simple band of ribbon, fabric, or even wire that is fastened inside your bonnet that helps hold the bonnet still. Think of it as wearing a headband inside your bonnet. 

A bonnet stay doesn’t have to be a permanent fixture in your bonnet. I simply straight-pinned mine in place. Choose your stay of an unobtrusive color - you don’t want it to show. I chose a ¾” wide piece of velvet ribbon - fuzzy side toward my hair so that it would grab my hair.

I measured from approximately 1 inch above the top of my ear across the top of my head to about 1 inch above the top of my other ear. After I cut the ribbon length, I pinned it into my bonnet on both sides of the interior of the bonnet where I thought it might fit me best. I had to adjust the placement a couple of times before I found the perfect position. You will likely need to do some trial and error, too. When you find that perfect spot inside your bonnet for the stay, you will notice that the bonnet feels balanced and secure. My bonnet is a fairly high spoon bonnet that can catch the wind a bit, but it never moves. Ever. 

As you can see from the photos, the bonnet stay is well hidden behind the netting and flowers on my bonnet. Also, notice that even on the model, the bonnet sits upright as it should.