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!

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