The extraordinary freaks of fashion in olden times scarcely exceed the absurdities into which we have been led since the first development of a bonnet out of the hat. This variation in our out-of-door head-dress dates from the year 1795. The original bonnet was shaped like a jockey-cap, the brim in front spreading out rather far on a line, with the top of the ear. It was tied on with lavender-coloured strings without ends, was composed of straw, the dome-shaped crown, decorated with red perpendicular stripes, meeting at the top (still jockey fashion) while the projecting brim was plain, and a wreath of laurel leaves surrounded the head.
Small-sized bonnets continued to be worn, as well as hats, up to about the year 1820, when, as our illustration will show you, the brim had expanded and there was no cap border to fill up the empty space underneath it. Some kind of ribbon ruching decorated the brim all round, the latter reaching down below the ear; and there was also a ribbon trimming for back round the crown.
Ten years afterwards a very plain and unbecoming style came into fashion - trimmings were almost at a discount. One plain piece of ribbon was passed round the middle of the coarse straw bonnet, the ends of which were tied under the chin; while, at the back and under the flat-lying crown, there was a frilling of the ribbon or of a piece of silk of the same colour, as a finish to the bonnet, and a shade to the back of the neck, called a "curtain". The straw was either of the natural colour, or else dyed black or brown. Sometimes a plainly-tied bow was placed, like a butterfly, on the top of the head, midway between the crown and the brim. Such a bonnet as this may still be seen on the girls of some of the "charity schools".
A few years afterwards young people often wore beaver bonnets, which were shaped much in the form of the above-named "cottage". These were trimmed with thick silk cords and tassels, matching them in colour.
Simultaneously with the wearing of these two descriptions of bonnets, turbans were in fashion amongst the dowagers, and these were transmitted from a still earlier date. A beautiful satin of a delicate shade of French plum-colour, or violet-grey, was sometimes manufactured into a high turban kind of cap, having a flat band of the material across the head, a high "caul" standing up at the back, and a narrow frill of lace round the face. Others wore a loosely-twisted and more Turkish-looking turban; either of velvet, or silk, or of both folded together and usually very bright in colour .These were decorated, as in the illustration, with feathers or other ornaments.
It is scarcely surprising that the hideous article known as the "cottage bonnet" of 1830 ceased to have any attractions after a reign of some seven years, and that we flew into another, and just opposite, extreme of fashion, when the immense flaring bonnet, assigned to the year 1837, the year of the accession of Queen Victoria, took the economical amongst us so painfully by surprise, with its floral decorations inside the deep front, and the three or four nodding ostrich plumes, towering high above the crown. The strings securing it were tied, in bows on one side, and, as you may imagine, it was a matter of some inconvenience to walk out on a rough day, as the preposterous front acted quite as a wind-sail, and it was with no little difficulty that it could be kept on the head. The name of this ill-contrived head-covering was an "opera hat", though "hat" it really was not; and it was either made of plain velvet or of silk. It is also worth observing that they were worn not merely out of doors and at the opera, but also at balls.
In a couple of years from the first appearance of the "opera hat", some modifications took place; the shape was a little changed, but the dimensions were reduced, and the trimming was omitted - at least, a plain band round the crown, a binding round the brim, a curtain, and a bow or two at the back, replaced the costly plumage of the previous two years. A cap border was also worn, very slight round the upper part over the hair, and very wide and thick at each side of the face.
Passing over some few years, and the trifling varieties, regulated by individual fancy, either of the milliner or the wearer, helping to fill a gap in the history of fashion, we find that a soupcon of the discarded "cottage" appeared about the year 1846, rather less unsightly, yet meagre in design, lying flat on the head, brim and crown being run into one, and parallel respectively with each other. A wreath of leaves or flowers enlivened its dullness outside, together with some narrow bands of ribbon or velvet laid across it at equal distances apart. No cap-border was worn with this head-gear, but the vacant space between the front and the face was partially filled up by large sausage-like rolls of hair, laid against the cheek and extending to the jaw, while a comb confined the braids across the forehead just above the eyebrows. These very unpretentious bonnets were made of straw, and were tied on, under the chin, with a bow of broad ribbon, the shallow curtain being of straw. Very pretty fancy straw bonnets were worn within the years 1840 and 1850, with trimmings of the same. These were Tuscan straws, of a buff colour, and sometimes the bonnets were made in alternate bands of straw plait, and gathered quillings of silk.
Gathered silk bonnets, of plain or checked material, in various colours, came into fashion in the year 1848, and with them the whisker-like cap-borders, lying on each cheek, and unconnected one with the other by any upper border. Ribbons and flowers embellished these quillings, which could be seen in profile below the rim of the bonnet-front, which was a good deal cut away from the cheeks on either side. Broad strings were tied in a bow under the chin, but no trimming decorated the exterior. The brim was moderately deep, spreading at the sides, and depressed at the top.
In about the year 1850 the brims of our bonnets were very wide, round, and deep, and the deep cap-frill of the previous style was still retained. These bonnets were of straw, and had very broad strings, tied in a large bow under the chin.
I do not pretend to give an unbroken list of all the out-of-door head coverings worn in each successive year, from the beginning of this century up to the present time; but so far only as any great varieties of fashion cropped up, from time to time, during that period. Of course there can be but one opinion respecting the fact that no fashion of the 19th century has ever been so extravagantly bizarre as those of the head-dresses that immediately preceded the creation of the bonnet. For example, if the "fair Mary Anne Robinson' otherwise known as the "Bird of Paradise", (an engraving of which may be seen in Fairholt's "Costumes of England") and others quite as monstrous, that excited no surprise nor disapproval in the year 1728. Those were the trying days when our unfortunate grandmothers or great-grandmothers used to require the services of a hairdresser on every occasion that their hair had to be "taken down", turned up again, and stuck all over with ribbons, flowers, feathers, and lace. What with all the false hair, pomatum, powder, and pinnings on all of the decorations in their right position upon a cushion laid on the top of the head, no one could rear up such an amazing erection for herself; nor could any ordinary maid do it for her. To save expense, therefore, a hairdresser had to be engaged monthly, or by those who could not economise in such a matter, weekly; and the operation he then performed was called "opening a lady's head"; when, as they significantly expressed it, "it would keep o longer!" At night, a large "net fillet" was put over all this grandeur, combining indoor head-dress, and outdoor bonnet, and hat all in one; and this bag was tied closely with a drawing string for the night. I suppose that at no period of the world's history did women suffer so acutely for the satisfaction of looking each like her neighbour.
Weary of the round broad brims and heavy cap-borders of the year 1864, we seem to have returned to our craze for height. Straw was still in vogue, and cutting away the brim at the ears, we raised up the centre to such a degree that, at a little distance, and regarded "full-face" it looked like a sugar-loaf. The whole of the inside was a mass of flowers and ribbons, and a broad pair of strings were tied under the chin. These bonnets were called "spoons".
After a reign of about two years the style of our bonnets again underwent a complete change, and the cone-shaped brim was seen no more, Then came in a very reasonable and pretty little cap-shaped head-dress, made of lace or tulle, upon a shape of buckram and wire. A small trimming of flowers decorated the exterior but the bonnet lying flat down on the top of the head, there was no room for embellishment inside the brim. A pair of tulle or lace-veil-like strings were connected together, at some distance below the chin, with a small bouquet or single flower.
In the year 1869 as you will observe from the illustration supplied, this pretty article of dress was deformed into a sort of patch, made of wire and buckram, covered with tulle and lace, worn like a saddle, and looking like a basket women's "pad" on the top of her head, to save it from injury in carrying her burden. A pair of silk lappet-strings, laced or fringed-out at each side, were brought together in the same style as those previously worn; the hair being elaborately dressed, and made the most of, to supply the deficiencies of this apology for a bonnet at the back.
Excepting the elderly ladies, hats appear to have aided considerably in filling-in the space of time between the introduction of the last style and the two nondescripts - half bonnet and half hat - that succeeded it in the years 1875-76. The first was of silk, and was perched on the back hair, showing a plait or coil of it in front. The brim was rather wide, and turned up all round. A large rose or bouquet was worn underneath it, over the left ear; and a large ostrich feather inserted in front, fell back over the crown. The hair was no longer brought down on either side of the forehead, but continued, as in the patch-bonnet, to be brushed back from the face; and the short-cut fringe of that over the forehead, so worn in 1866, remained in fashion til 1876.
The year last-named saw a change in our head coverings. Straw reigned once more, but there was a little of it in the saucer shapes that again served only to cover the back-hair, and to leave one plait of it visible in front. Feathers, silk bows, and bunches of fruit nearly hid their foundation from view; and a pair of broad tulle or net strings were brought round from the centre of the back, to be united on the chest of the wearer. These two last-named bonnets were in very bad taste, and had an indescribably vulgar effect, perhaps to be accounted for by its peculiar associations, i.e., the great tenacity with which the lower classes have retained these shapes, with their dirty, gaudy finery, and the bold look of suck a lack of covering, and shade to the face out of doors - placing them on the back hair as they still do, up to the present time.
It would be impossible to say what style of head-gear more than another distinguishes the taste of to-day; so many are the forms adopted to suit the faces or fancies of the wearers; nor would it always be possible to distinguish which was a bonnet and which was a hat.