The Commodification Of Straw…
The fashion for straw amongst the European aristocracy was born out of a romantic idealism for the rural existence of the lower classes. The popularity of straw as a material was also due to its practicality and durability against the elements whilst ladies went walking or visiting (See the 1750’s example of a waterproofed Bergère in my post Bergère & Bonnets – Part I).
Romantic idylls aside, straw in the eighteenth century was a desirable, and expensive, commodity. In Europe, the best hats were made of a superior quality straw called Leghorn straw from Legorno (now Livorno) in Tuscany. It was not just the quality of the straw that made these hats expensive. Look closely at the detail of the early 19th c. straw hats below. The straw has been plaited by hand.
The intricacy of the work demanded skilled labour and this skill was taught in the plaiting schools that sprung up in regions in Britain such as the Midlands, Bedfordshire and Herefordshire. Children as young as three were sent to these schools in exchange for a very poor standard of education.
Straw plaiting was the predominantly the work of women and children and considered one of the better paid cottage industries. Plaiting schools in Britain eventually died out in the late 19th century and this is owing to the Education Act of 1870. The demand for British straw also waned as free trade after 1860 enabled cheap imports to replace the more expensive home-grown variety.
The early nineteenth century ideal for a classical profile was not always accurate and the poke bonnet is indicative of this strange take on the classical silhouette. The poke bonnet did have a practical use against extremes of weather but this did not stop satirists lampoon its shape, especially when proportions grew to completely conceal the wearers face.
The ties of a bonnet that were secured under the chin vary from the very simple (above) or the quite fanciful (below).
Notice the bottom left image and how the ribbon has been secured to the hat by a small pin. These pins serve as a small reminder of the difficulties of early nineteenth century life. Pin making in both the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries was a dangerous job as the processes involved shortened the lives of men who entered into the trade. As a consequence pin makers were often heavy drinkers, gamblers and philanderers knowing their life expectancy was that of about 35 years of age.
Around 1815 bonnets were expanding in size and ostentatious detail was introduced to dress once more. This 1820s bonnet below is a good example of an formal bonnet for this period. The hat is trimmed with silk gauze ribbon. Althea Mackenzie writes in her book, Hats and Bonnets, that silk gauze at this time was one of the most desirable and expensive trimmings.
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.
Mackenzie, Althea. Hats and Bonnets. London, The National Trust, 2004.