1880s-90s Bird Hat, on loan from the Hereford Museum Resource and Learning Centre
Hats & Bonnets

The Bird & Pearl

So here it is…my favorite hat in the exhibition. It feels a little sacrilegious to say this as this hat is actually on loan from the Hereford Museum and Learning Resource Centre (If I could do a second blog on the incredible costume collection housed there I would; Over 8000 items!). I do happen to have another firm favorite from the Snowshill collection but today I wanted to put the spotlight on this showstopper. Also, if I ever decide to renounce a career in heritage and open a lovely pub somewhere then I have to acknowledge that this hat has given me the inspiration for the name of my future establishment; the Bird & Pearl…keep an eye out for it tucked among the eateries in Mumbles, Swansea in a decades timeūüėČ

What makes this hat even more special is that it tells a significant tale. When I asked Costume Curator, Althea Mackenzie, what information she had on this particular hat she responded that it was the fashion for killing birds for the purpose of adorning hats and clothes in the late 19th century that led to the creation of the RSPB. A reminder of the sobering and silent narratives woven into historical garments, no matter how spectacular or beautiful they may be.   

Ruched lining detail, early 19th C. Poke Bonnet, Snowshill Costume Collection
Hats & Bonnets

Beautiful Bonnets – 19th Century

The time has come for less talk, more bonnets…

An 1840s purple-brown silk velvet with a lining of cream silk stamped with the makers name ‘Miss Lincoln, milliner, Broad Row, Yarmouth.’

The complicated plait work on this 1840s bonnet was extremely fashionable during this period. The bonnet below is made from horsehair, cotton and straw.

1840s Bonnet

Hats & Bonnets

Bergère and Bonnets РPart II

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 Berg√®re in my post Berg√®re & 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.

Poke Bonnets

poking fun of the poke bonnet! Regency satire, 1810

poking fun of the poke bonnet, Regency satire, 1810

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 ‚Äď 1900. London: The National Trust, 1996.

Bradfield, Nancy. Costume in Detail, women‚Äôs dress 1730 ‚Äď 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.



Hats & Bonnets

Pandora – or what happened before Vogue

Before¬†Vogue¬†and before¬†The Sartorialist¬†how on earth did Georgian ladies keep up with the fashions across the Channel?? Meet the Pandoras (pictured)…the miniature dolls that were sent over from France in the eighteenth century to keep the Georgian fashion pack in the know about the latest trends, in every detail.

These dolls were considered to be more accurate than word of mouth. They were invented as a means of conveying costume detail long before the technology of the woodcut and copperplate were available to create the fashion plate and, eventually, Vogue, Elle and Grazia.

In the seventeenth century the fashion doll really took off with the improvements in European trade. It became fashionable for ladies to own a pair of dolls, one dressed en grande toilette, and the other en dèshabille. These became known as the Grande Pandore (Court attire) and the Petit Pandore (every day wear) respectively.

Did you know some of these dolls were actually life-size? These novelty items of the aristocracy soon became an integral part of the high fashion trade in the seventeenth century, travelling around the world to ensure the wealthy were wearing the latest fashions from France.

Dudmaston Fashion Doll

In Shropshire a National Trust property is lucky enough to own one of these rare eighteenth century Pandora dolls. It even has its original clothes and a set from another doll, the second doll now sadly lost. See the incredible images below…


Cunnington, Phillis. Your Book of Seventeenth and Eighteenth century costume. London: Faber and Faber, 1970.

Fraser, Antonia. Dolls. London: Octopus Books, 1963.

Bergère 1750s, Charles Paget Wade Hats & Bonnets Exhibition at Berrington Hall 2014
Hats & Bonnets

Bergères and Bonnets РPart I

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 ‚Äď 1900. London: The National Trust, 1996.

Bradfield, Nancy.¬†Costume in Detail, women‚Äôs dress 1730 ‚Äď 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.