One of the earliest hats in the Snowshill costume collection is a mid 18th c. Bergère hat. To the modern eye this hat appears a bland piece of head wear when we think of Georgian fashions; images of the excessive fashions of Marie Antoinette and the Duchess of Devonshire are immediately conjured but thanks to objects such as this beautiful hat we are afforded a more complete view of what was available to the fashionable Georgian lady.
The hat comprises a large disc of straw with a shallow crown and it is lined with claret silk taffeta. The ties are attached to the crown in matching claret ribbon with a rosette on each tie.
The style of the hat is very fashionable for its time. See below the images of wealthy Georgian ladies sporting this style hat.
Even though this particular hat would have been the preserve of the wealthy this style owes itself to the practical attire of the working woman in Georgian Britain. The term bergère is a French term for Shepherdess and is indicative of the Georgian romantic idealism for all things pastoral and the predilection for countryside pursuits.
This bergère hat is of more modest proportions than the example above. Its construction belies its practical purpose for protection against sun and rain when out walking or visiting. Look closely, the remnants of a thick fawn paint and varnish are evident as an early means of weather proofing the straw hat. Fashionable and practical…should somebody let Barbour know that the bergère is right up their sartorial street?
On The Cheap…
As I’ve already mentioned not everybody could afford such beautifully crafted Bergère hats as those shown above but the knock-off trade thrived then as it does now. Most fashion-forward people today could probably determine a fake Prada bag from the real thing but how do you tell with historical accessories? Look at the detail where the silk has worn away in the close up below. The plaited material is not straw but a cheaper alternative chip made from fine slivers of wood.
Why was straw so expensive?
Straw hats are not something we associate today with status, wealth and craftsmanship. Yet all the hats you see above (with the exception of the Bergère made from wood chip) were worn by the wealthier individuals of eighteenth century society. As its June I am aware that even my local Tesco is stocking straw hats for a few quid so what makes these objects from the Snowshill collection so remarkable?
Well the two things your Georgian lady would be concerned with are the quality of the straw and the quality of the plaiting (done by hand by children as young as 4!).
In my next post, Bergères and Bonnets Part II, I shall go into further detail about the manufacture of straw in the eighteenth century and why it made these hats so desirable.
Ashelford, Jane. The Art of Dress: clothes through history, 1500 – 1900. London: The National Trust, 1996.
Bradfield, Nancy. Costume in Detail, women’s dress 1730 – 1930.London, Eric Dobby publishing, 1968.
Cunnington, Phillis. Your Book of Seventeenth and Eighteenth century costume. London: Faber and Faber, 1970.
Fraser, Antonia. Dolls. London: Octopus Books, 1963.
Mackenzie, Althea. Hats and Bonnets. London, The National Trust, 2004.