It's the Season for Bonnets

Diane Shewchuk, Curator

On March 26, 1897, the Times Union reported that “In the spring, a woman’s fancy naturally turns to the thoughts of a new bonnet.”

Since it’s the season for bonnets, I’d like to show you a few of ours as a sneak peek of our upcoming exhibition Personal Plumage: Fashion & Feathers. The oldest examples of feather-trimmed headgear in our collection are bonnets dating to 1848—1850. I’m always amazed that these have survived in such remarkable condition and that trimmings were not removed. Think about it, these are about 180 years old! Our bonnets bear little resemblance to the cotton calico versions worn by Laura Ingalls or Holly Hobbie.

Ivory Silk Bonnet

Gathered, ribbed silk covers the frame of this romantic bonnet that may have been worn by a bride in the mid-nineteenth century. Loops of matching silk ribbon (now stuffed with acid-free tissue) are stitched to the top and sides. An ostrich plume that curls over the bonnet retains a few sequins, now tarnished, that are glued to the rachis or shaft and tips of the barbs – who says Victorian women didn’t like bling? I’m sure that when this goes on display, visitors that don’t read the label will mistake the sequins for black bugs. The inside of the bonnet is lined with the same ribbed silk and two clusters of artificial thistles are tucked into each side.

Nineteenth century milliners and do-it-yourselfers couldn’t just pop into Joann’s or Michaels to purchase supplies, but they could purchase imported ribbons, feathers, and artificial flowers to decorate their bonnets from local merchants. Albany newspapers ran advertisements to entice customers.  


And if a woman needed inspiration, she could page through the latest issue of Godey’s Lady’s Book, an American women’s magazine that was published from 1830 to 1878. Descriptions and illustrations of latest fashions ran monthly. However, nothing compares to French fashion. I stumbled on the following 1852 French print while browsing through an online database of fashion plates housed at the Costume Institute of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The bonnets in our collection have a similar feel of restrained excess with the exception of one.


Le Moniteur de la Mode, November 1852 Collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art

Pale Blue Silk Bonnet

Dating to 1855-56, this bonnet can only be described as a confection perfect for spring. It was meant to be admired from every angle. The bonnet is covered in pastel blue ribbed silk and decorated with matching silk ribbon bows. Tubes of silk satin that are pressed flat extend from the crown to the back of the bonnet. Artificial flowers and more ribbon bows edge the interior and a white ostrich plumes adds texture and movement. I’ll try to get the flowers to perk up with a little steam before this is displayed.


Straw Bonnet

The last bonnet I want to show you is a jaunty, straw, silk, and feather example made around 1889. Bonnets never truly went out of style in the nineteenth century. They just adapted to the latest trend. Without knowing the fashionable hair styles of the time, it is hard to imagine this bonnet perched on a lady’s head. It seems both innocent and coquettish. When seen from the front, the gathered chiffon lining may appear like an abbreviated halo around the face. When seen from the sides, the bonnet looks playful.


I hope you enjoyed this preview of some of the headgear that will be featured in our upcoming exhibition. 

PS. One of my favorite things about my job is that I learn something new everyday. I didn’t know what the parts of a feather were called until I began working on this project.

April 10, 2020