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Is it a hat? or maybe it’s a bonnet . . . ?

September 7, 2015

ladies hatsEvery woman in the 19th century wore a hat when she appeared in public. Women’s hats were made custom for them, either by very crafty homemakers, or more likely at a Millinery shop in town. Mrs. S.J. Elliott’s Millinery shop can be found in the Living History Farms’ town of Walnut Hill. Here’s a little 1875 fashion conundrum for you, courtesy of the shop’s site supervisor, Laura: millinery

Is there a difference between a hat and a bonnet? Often, we automatically categorize anything with side brims around the face as a bonnet (think of a sunbonnet) and smaller, decorative items on the top of the head as a hat. But is it really that simple? No.

1874-1875 was a time of complex ladies’ headgear. No longer content to merely protect a woman’s head, the hats and bonnets of fashionable ladies at this time were platforms for ruffles and twists of fabric, feathers, bows, and bouquets of artificial flowers. In fact, display was considerably more important than function.

millineryHarper’s Bazar, “Paris Fashions,” writer Emmeline Raymond penned, “There is no change in bonnets. So long as the hair is piled on top of the head, the little device which takes the place of a dress cap must remain as it is. The brims are generally flattened at the sides, swelling above the front, and turned up behind in order to make room for the hair, which would not find room whereon to lodge if the precaution were not taken, here and there, to punch out what is called a brim of what is called a bonnet. It is said, however, that straw hats of the Pamela shape are in preparation, that is, turned up behind, but shading the forehead. It would be so sensible to wear a bonnet that would protect the face from the sun that I give this news with due caution. For my part, I can not believe it. “– April 11, 1874.

With all that turning and twisting of the brim, it becomes hard to distinguish between hats and bonnets. Formerly, one could assume that any piece of headgear that enclosed the head, back and sides and top, which tied with strings under the chin was a bonnet. A hat, on the other hand, would cover just the top of the head, and possibly stay on by itself like a man’s hat, though children’s hats sometimes needed strings as well. But by 1874, the bonnet had shrunk to hat like proportions, and the hats were small enough to require pins to keep them on the head.


The fashion writers themselves admit confusion:

“Strings are seldom seen, and this does away with the last distinguishing feature between bonnets and round hats; the same head-covering now serves for each, as it is a bonnet when worn far back on the head, and a hat when tilted forward.” –Harper’s Bazar, “New York Fashions,” April 4, 1874, p219.


Harper’s Bazar original editions in the collection of Cornell University library HEARTH program.


All nine of the ladies above are wearing bonnets.

“Out of forty French bonnets only two were found with strings to tie under the chin; hence they can scarcely longer claim to be bonnets; and, moreover, they are to be placed further forward than at present, as round hats should be worn.”— Harper’s Bazar, “New York Fashions,” March 14, 1874, p171.

Below we see two hats and a bonnet. Can you tell the difference? Both of the hats are nearly level with the eyebrows, while the bonnet’s brim is tipped up. It may cover slightly more of the head, as well. Ignore the ribbons trailing down the back of all three.


An 1870s reader might find these hats a bit jauntier than the bonnet, and the bonnet more dressy. Hats were considered less formal than bonnets. They were fine for walking, for wear in the country and at watering places, but not for mourning. One would wear a bonnet to church in the 1870s, even if the brim never came close to the ears and exposed the back hair.

Does that make it clearer?

Test yourself: Below is a plate from the January 31, 1874 issue of Harper’s Bazar, showing hats, bonnets, and one headdress of black tulle and flowers. Which one is which?

harpers fashion

All of these illustrations show high fashion as worn in New York City and Paris: elaborate and extravagant, and liable to be wrecked entirely if caught in a Midwestern downpour without a carriage to resort to for protection. The work of our interpreters in Mrs. Elliott’s Millinery is quiet and plain in comparison. But it still begs the question: Is it a bonnet? or is it a hat?hat

You can explore bonnets, hats and head-covers at Living History Farms’ second annual Hat Day event on Wednesday, September 30. Celebrate the opening of our annual fall clothing and quilt exhibition! Wear your favorite fancy hat to the Farms and get $10 admission. Explore the Flynn Mansion where clothing, quilts and other historic textiles will be on special exhibition. Visit the 1875 Millinery shop for a close up look at Victorian hat stylings and a chat with our milliner. Join us for tea and cookies in the Visitor Center and sign up for a drop-in class in hat-trimming. In the morning, classes will make French beaded flower trims and in the afternoon class, we will make ribbon cockades. At 11:00am, sneak a peek at 19th Century undergarments in a presentation by our historic clothing expert!
beaded flower trim ribbon cockade

(Answer Key to Ladies’ “Winter Hats, Bonnets, and Head-dress”, January 31, 1874, from left to right: 1: Bonnet. 2: Hat. 3: Hat. 4: Hat. 5: Bonnet. 6: Head-dress. 7: Hat. 8: Hat. 9: Hat.)

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