Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Bee in Her Bonnet

[I’m having a bit of a crazy week, so I’m postponing the “regularly scheduled program,” part 2 of the Sonnet Form series, until next Wednesday. In the meantime, here’s the latest installment in Eberle’s Women’s Art is Women’s Work series. Enjoy!]

Why would a popular hat be named after a murderess?
What did it mean
that the fashionable “Merry Widow” hat kept getting larger and larger?
Were hatpins really a menace to men?

Was British Parliament justified in limiting the sale of hatpins to two days a year?

A group of Athenian women in the sixth century B.C. used the long pins they wore in their clothing to stab a soldier after he informed them that their husbands had met their deaths in battle. That was a long time ago, but the possibility of women using fashion accessories as weapons still has a special place in myth, law, and literature.

Hatpins were popular between the 1850s and the 1930s, reaching their most dramatic length from the turn of the century to 1913—after which time legislation was put into place to limit their size.

But not to put the cart before the horse—hats came before hatpins, and before hats came: bonnets. In the mid-eighteenth century, women at home wore “house bonnets,” actually more like head-scarves, tied under the chin and a version of the same for protection outdoors. As coiffures ascended higher and higher in the anti-gravity trend of the 1770s, bonnets served mostly to protect these structures from wind and weather. Then, for most of the nineteenth century, the bonnet dominated the millinery horizon and rode the waves of fashion. It was a wild ride. Bonnets ranged from enormous structures with bouquets of flowers and vegetables on them, as well as ribbons, plumes, and whole stuffed birds, to tiny things that had to be skewered on with pins. There were turbans too, and gypsy and shepherdess hats, picture hats and conversation hats. Bonnets represented up-to-the-minute fashion, constantly changing.

I have no faith in transien
t passion.
How true soever it seem to be,
Which, like a bonnet, goes out of fashion,
As soon as it loses its novelty.

Elizabeth Akers Allen "True Love Can Ne'er Forget" (1856)

Novelty in bonnets recorded all kinds of trends—and flotsam from the tides of international economics washed up on their lacy and ruffled shores as well: ostrich feathers from Africa, birds of paradise from South Africa, entire hummingbirds from Brazil. Also from Brazil came iridescent beetles that were made into jewelry and ornaments for headgear, very popular in the 1870s and 1880s. Some daring women wore live insects as part of this trend. Lillie Langtry went to a nineteenth century ball with gold mesh containing live butterflies draped over a gown. In New York, women put fireflies in their hair for adornment. Godey’s Lady’s Book in 1863 told readers that "(t)he ornithological and entomological fevers, which broke out last spring, will continue with increased violence throughout the winter." Godey’s showcased the millinery creations of Madame Tilman, which incorporated beetles, bird nests, butterflies, flowers, grasses, hummingbirds and mosses.

Simultaneous with this fashion trend was an intense interest in
natural history, both as a hobby and scientific pursuit. Many pastimes involving natural science were recommended for women in their leisure time, including maintaining a kind of terrarium, known as a "Ward Case." This trend started in London, but is described in Catherine E. Beecher and Harriet Beecher Stowe's popular American Woman's Home as well. Taxidermy was another hobby considered acceptable for nineteenth century women to pursue. Museums at the time were blossoming almost as effulgently as bonnets, and people thronged to them—some wearing bonnets with specimens matching the ones inside the case and reflected back at them in the glass.

Bonnets in the countryside served more overtly practical purposes, and rural women in Britain and the United States often learned to plait straw to make bonnets and hats for themselves or for sale in local markets. Better paid sewing was confined to more urban areas, but plaiting could add to farm income and required little equipment. A straw-splitter, invented in the early 1800s, made plaiting easier; before that, straws could be split with a knife to produce a finer plait. Plaiting straw is one of the activities that women have shared for centuries from regions all across the globe. An even older form of straw work was the corn-dolly or corn-mother used in ancient harvest rituals.

During Jane Austen’s time, the best straw bonnets came from Leghorn. In The Beautiful Cassandra, Jane gives a leading role to a bonnet. Jane wrote some of her most delightful work as a teenager, casting a critical and often sarcastic eye on the social customs that surrounded her. In a variety of works that she wrote between the ages of twelve and sixteen, she made fun of history, of class snobbery, of love, of pompous arrogance and hypocrisy, showing up the foibles of her elders. Jane’s eye for the absurdity as well as the poignancy of socialized existence continued throughout her writing career, but there is a quality of wackiness to her early works that make them laugh-out-loud reading.

Cassandra, heroine
of The Beautiful Cassandra, starts her career like many heroines, by falling in love, but in Cassandra’s case she falls in love not with a man but—with a bonnet. Cassandra is not an upper class lady, her mother in fact is a milliner, and Cassandra’s first act is to steal a bonnet intended for a Countess and then walk out of her mother’s shop. Her purpose: to make her fortune. She curtsies when she sees a Viscount, but then walks on and that is the end of that love interest. Next she devours six ices in a pastry shop and refuses to pay for them, knocks down the pastry cook, and walks away. She ascends a coach and proceeds to give nonsensical orders to the coachman. Again she refuses to pay, and the bonnet reappears, crowning the climax of Cassandra’s roving and lawless career when she takes it and puts it on the coachman’s head before running off. Back home soon afterwards, and pressed lovingly to her mother’s bosom, she says to herself: “This is a day well spent.”

Pix from top
Jean-Baptiste Greuze:
Portrait of a Young Countrywoman
Lillie Langtry (portrait by Millais)
A Merry Widow hat
The Marquise de Pezé and the Marquise de Rouget with Her Two Children, Elisabeth Vigée-LeBrun (1787)
Silhouette of Cassandra Austen (Jane's sister)


  1. Guess that hat was "to die for"! My great grandmother had a gorgeous collection of hat pins. They were always on her dresser and I loved looking at them when I was a girl.

    Taxidermy?! Hmm. Sounds really therapeutic. ;^)

  2. . "used the long pins they wore in their clothing to stab a soldier after he informed them that their husbands had met their deaths in battle......" Ummm.adds a whole new meaning to the term "Bad-Hair Day"!

  3. Hi Willow & Tony:

    Both of those comments have me laughing! Thanks.

  4. "A group of Athenian women in the sixth century B.C. used the long pins they wore in their clothing to stab a soldier after he informed them that their husbands had met their deaths in battle."

    Talk about killing the messenger! Delivering this news was a worse job than being the anonymous eternity-bound Star Trek yeoman beamed down with the away team.

  5. Hi K: That's right-- especially in the original Star Trek, there was always one unknown actor on the away team that got zapped immediately!

  6. Many years ago, I knew a woman who kept a hatpin in the driver's side visor of her car - for self-defense. I guess some things never change.

  7. I do recall that during WW2 my dad's sister used to visit regularly, and that when she left she would have a long, dark walk across the common to catch her train. She would always carefully place a huge hatpin in her hat, saying that no man had better try anything on with her. She looked like she meant it!

  8. Hi Sandra & Dave:

    Those are both interesting anecdotes. Thanks!

  9. I spend the summer trying to get away from flying and stinging insects; I certainly wouldn't wear them on my head! I wonder if anyone ever wore a bowl of fish?

    I could never figure out how a hatpin secured the hat to one's head. As a child I would try on hats of my mother's with a pearl stick pin and thought you had to actually stick your head with it. I opted out.

    A most interesting post, thank you.



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