Were Easter bonnets worn in the 1800s?

Victorian spring bonnets from 1850s and 1860s America

Victorian spring bonnets from 1850s and 1860s America

The Easter bonnet custom grew from the tradition that spring was a time for fresh clothing. There was a connection between new garments and Easter-time in many parts of Europe, going back for centuries.

In the 1800s if a woman couldn’t afford a brand new outfit, a spring bonnet was a nice way to renew her wardrobe at the end of winter. And if she couldn’t afford a new bonnet, fresh ribbons and flowers could make an old one look as good as new.

The idea of having a special Easter bonnet spread through America in the later part of the 19th century, around the time the New York Easter parade started to be a big deal in the 1880s. Wearing a freshly-trimmed bonnet to church on Easter day was nothing new; now calling it an “Easter bonnet” started to catch on.

Although fashion details changed, of course, general guidelines for Victorian spring bonnets were:

  • Made of plain or dyed straw or chip or “Leghorn”  – an upmarket kind of braided straw. Silk and silk crepe were also used.
  • Plenty of ribbon and other light floaty trimmings like lace and feathers
  • Floral trimmings – real flowers could be added, as well as those made of silk, velvet etc. The New York Times said violets were the favourite flowers for bonnets in spring 1890.

Surprisingly, black was not ruled out. We don’t think of it as a spring colour, but 19th century descriptions of spring bonnets quite often mention some black trimming.

Fashions were pictured and described in magazines for women to imitate when fixing up last year’s straw bonnet – like these:

Fine English chip – narrow blonde [creamy lace] edging at front – lace curtain surrounded by a fold of white silk, edged with blonde – deep fall of blonde – marabout [feather] – bows of white ribbon – purple and white crocuses… (USA 1856)

Spring bonnet of violet crepe. The edge is cut out fancifully, bound with violet satin, and ornamented with crystal beads. The strings are laid over the top of the bonnet and trimmed on each side with sprays of white crepe flowers and violet leaves. (USA 1867)

White chip, trimmed with green leaves and scarlet velvet flowers – jet chains are looped over the chignon… (USA 1867)

Straw, trimmed with light ribbon, disposed in folds, and with two long flowing ends on left side. Lined with white aerophane [light gauzy silk], laid in small, neat folds. Undertrimming, loops of black velvet. (USA 1854  – left in picture above)

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