The Victorian era was almost a century of fashion. In that time, ladies’ Victorian hats grew from the large bonnet to the small bonnet, short hat to tall hat, plain to elaborately decorated. Keeping track of all the changes is no easy feat, as hat styles came and went every few years. Changes mimicked dress fashions as well as hairstyles. There were hats for every occasion, from walking, riding, morningwear, and even home use.
The following explores major changes in Victorian hat fashions from the pre-Victorian 1830s to the late 1890s. It is sourced from Victorian Costume and Costume Accessories by Anne Buck, published in 1961 (Copyright expired).
Most ladies’ Victorian hats are not readily available, at least not at reasonable costs, in the early and mid-Victorian styles. Making your own Victorian hat is the best option using a hat pattern or a felt or straw base with which to decorate. Simple modern hats and bonnets in the correct shape can be re-decorated with flowers, bows, feathers, and ribbon to match the preferred decade and style.
Victorian Bonnets 1830s -1850s
The bonnet which was worn in the year of Queen Victoria’s accession had a wide brim, not so large as it had been in the 1830s, but still making a wide spreading frame for the face. The crown, which was roughly the shape of a cone with the top cut off, was set at an angle to the brim. This was the shape for bonnets of straw and for those made of silk or velvet on a stiff foundation, but there was another method of making which gave a slightly different shaping.
The drawn bonnets, those in which the material was gathered over a framework of cane or wire, had the same shaping of the brim, but the framework gave a horseshoe shape to the puffed and gathered crown.
The straw bonnets may be Leghorn bonnets, that is, of straw grown in Tuscany and plaited in the Italian fashion. These were still the most fashionable of straw bonnets. They can be distinguished by the fineness of the straw, and by the method of plaiting, with each braid plaited into the next so that the fabric of the bonnet appears continuous.
Their English rivals, rather less fashionable and expensive, were Dunstable bonnets of English straw, in which the larger English wheat-straw was split before plaiting and the plaited braids were then sewn together. In some bonnets, the Leghorn straw was used, plaited and sewn in England in the English manner.
Straw bonnets were worn during the summer months. They were worn fashionably with walking dress, but amongst the less fashionable and in the country, they appeared on all occasions. These bonnets were nearly always plainly trimmed, with ribbons. The more fashionable dress bonnets were in silk of many different kinds, plain silk or satin, watered silk, figured silk; and transparent bonnets in net, crepe or lace were regarded as especially becoming. Velvet was the usual material for winter.
Ribbon and feathers were the most general trimming; the bird of paradise plume was the most fashionable for the years 1835 to 1845. Flowers were also used. The trimming of the inside of the brim was as important as the trimming of the outside of the bonnet, and lace, ribbon and flowers were used to ornament it. The lining of the bonnet brim was also important.
“No one article in the whole range of female costume is more important in its effects than that comparatively small piece of satin, silk or other material that forms the lining of the bonnet” (Mrs. M. J. Howell, Handbook of Millinery, 1847. Read it here).
But some straw bonnets appear to have been worn with unlined brims. The bonnets I mostly have wide ribbons to tie beneath the chin, and a curtain— which in the straw bonnets may be of straw or ribbon—to shield the back of the neck. The curtain—or bavolet, for it is sometimes called by its French name—is found in almost all bonnets from the beginning of the period until the 1860s.
Straw bonnets of this early period may be found now, either denuded of their original ribbons and feathers or with the added trimmings of “dressing up”, professional or amateur. The straw ones are more likely to have suffered alteration than the silk ones, where trimming and foundation can less easily be separated, but any bonnet may, of course, have had flowers, ribbons and feathers removed from it or added to it.
The change in the shape of the bonnet began in 1838, when a form with brim and crown continuous in a straight line appeared. This was not a new form. Bonnets of this type, which had been known as the cottage bonnet, had been worn in the first decade of the century.
The shaping of the 1840s was distinguished from the earlier examples by the downward curve of the lower edge from the back of the crown to the edge of the brim, the brim coming down low on the cheek, covering the face. For the whole of the next decade, 1840 to 1850, this was the bonnet form
. The only variation was in its close and open styles, the former closing in on the face and the latter having a wider brim; but both, in profile, had the same horizontal line from brim to crown.
The drawn-bonnet construction of the 1830s continued in this new form. Silk or satin was gathered over a series of cane hoops, and the back of the crown was a stiffened circle. Other bonnets were made in silk and satin, laid tightly over a stiff foundation. Straw bonnets still continued to be worn for summer. Chip plait, which is made from fine wood splints, was also fashionable. From the middle of the 1840s, openwork straw plaits, and fine straw mixed with horsehair in fancy braids, or alternate braids of straw and horsehair, were much used. Velvet remained the usual material for winter bonnets.
The trimming was ribbon, a wreath of flowers or a single feather falling from the center down one side of the bonnet. There was still trimming inside the brim—a ruching of ribbon, net or lace, a wreath of flowers to frame the face, or knots of ribbon, net or lace, or flowers at each side.
By 1850 the open form of bonnet was more general than the close, and from this came the change of bonnet shape in the 1850s. The brim opened more widely around the face and the crown grew lower and smaller, so that by 1853 the new shaping was established: “it is the peculiar form of crown which gives this appearance, by being made low and sloping towards the back” (World of Fashion, 1853). This bonnet was worn well back on the head, revealing the face, looking a little as if it were slipping off backwards.
Bonnets of the last two years of the decade have the sides curving back, exposing yet more of the face, but the top more forward on the forehead. In the early 1860s, the front rose high, narrow and rather pointed, with the sides receding, giving a shape which was aptly called spoon-shaped. Straw, horsehair, velvet, net and crepe were all fashionable for these bonnets, and they were trimmed with flowers, feathers, ribbon and lace. They usually had very long curtains in the late 1850s and early 1860s.
“The bavolet has remained stationary. Had it increased in size, it would have become quite a tippet” (Ladies’ Treasury, 1858).
Early Victorian Hats – 1850s, 1860s
At the beginning of the reign, hats were not fashionable, although by the late 1840s a large, round straw hat was being worn at the seaside, and for garden and country wear. These hats were usually rather flat-crowned with wide, turned-down brims, made of coarse straw.
From 1857, hats became fashionable wear for younger women: “of course they are not suited to elderly ladies” (World of Fashion, 1857). These also were hats with rather flat crowns, but wide curving brims, a form usually trimmed with ribbon and feathers placed at the front.
Hats were still only used for the most informal wear but, during the 1860s, hats of different shapes were gradually taking the place of bonnets —at least for the younger women—for all but the most formal occasions.
In 1861, there were three main shapes: a hat with oval crown and brim turned up at the sides; a round hat with turned back brim; and a higher-crowned bell-shaped hat. A small sailor hat with round crown and straight narrow brim joined these shapes in 1863. This, and the round hat with the turned-back brim, were the hats of children before they were adopted for adult fashion.
From 1863, for the next three or four years, two other shapes were much worn: a high-crowned hat with a narrow brim flat all round and a hat with a slightly lower crown and the brim turned up each side but down at back and front.
The Tyrolean hat, a fashion of the last year of the decade and worn for a year or two, was another version of the high-crowned hat, with scarcely any brim at all.
An important innovation at this time was the use of felt for fashionable hats. It was not a new material for women’s hats, for it had been used in the eighteenth century and for nineteenth- century riding hats, but it had only rarely appeared amongst the fashionable bonnet forms of the 1830s, 1840s and 1850s. It came into general fashionable use only with the revival of the hat, from the late 1850s onwards.
Summer hats were made of straw and horsehair plait, winter ones of felt and velvet. The trimming of hats was usually fairly restrained; ribbon, particularly velvet ribbon was most used and often the edge of the brim was bound with it.
Feathers were often added to this in hats of the late 1850s and early 1860s; after 1863, flowers appear on hats as well as on bonnets. The trimming was most often placed at the front.
Many bonnets of the 1860s are difficult to distinguish from dress caps of the same time. In 1863, the high raised front flattened, the crown grew smaller, and the sides, which were already receding, disappeared; at the same time the curtain grew smaller and then also disappeared.
By the mid-1860s, the bonnet was no more than a light shell of horsehair or crepe, high on the back of the head—”no longer bonnets but plaques of lace trimmed with the tiniest of flowers” (Ladies’ Treasury, 1866).
These very small bonnets continued in fashion until 1870, when the fashion journals were still making the same comment: “no such thing as a bonnet is now in existence, and what is so called is a mere ornament for the head—a puff, a diadem, a lace fluting, a bonnet of flowers, a band of ribbon” (Englishwoman’s Domestic Magazine, 1870).
The changing styles of hat and bonnet during the 1860s were closely linked with the changing fashion in hairdressing. During the 1860s, the chignon increased in size and rose from a position low at the back of the head in the first half of the decade to a mass of hair high at the back of the head by the end of it, a change which makes it clear that the bonnet of the early 1860s could no longer be worn in the late 1860s.
The strings of the small flat bonnets were often tied at the back beneath this high chignon. Roughly speaking, the size of the bonnet in the late 1860s was in inverse proportion to the quantity of hair, whether real or added, displayed in the hairdressing. The raising of the hairdressing at the back of the head meant that, from 1867, hats were worn tilted forward over the forehead: the small bonnets rested flat at the top of the head or made a narrow diadem of crepe or lace with flowers or ribbon at the front of the head. Shop Victorian hair accessories, wigs and pieces.
Mid Victorian Hats -1870s, 1880s
From 1871, the hairdressing became looser, but still more complicated and elaborate, usually needing much additional hair. High-crowned hats, with turned-up brims, continued to be worn, tilted over the forehead, and these were perhaps the most popular form of the early 1870s.
From 1872 a new form appeared. This was a hat like a boy’s sailor hat of the time, with a round crown, and brim turned up all around. It was much worn and remained fashionable until 1875. “The round marin anglais hat with sloped- up brim all round which ladies wear pushed over chignons … is certainly the most absurd fashion . . . yet it is a great favorite with ladies of almost all ages. These chapeaus are exactly the same shape as our little boys’ felt hats . . . only they are ornamented with feathers and aigrettes and tied with broad strings of grosgrain or moire ribbon” (Englishwoman’s Domestic Magazine, 1875).
From 1872, and more generally from 1873, the high chignon was worn inside the crowns of hats and bonnets, so that the forward tilt changed to a backward tilt for bonnets, and hats rested high on top of the head. The round brimmed hat was also worn in a bonnet form, the only difference being the strings which tied the bonnet under the chin. Then even this slight distinction was lost for a few years in the mid-1870s, when bonnets were worn without strings. The flat bonnets of the 1860s had disappeared, but the diadem form, without crown but profusely trimmed with flowers, remained.
From 1874, the upturned brims of the sailor bonnet were trimmed with flowers. A bonnet with a round crown, like this, but with a diadem form in front, was another style of the mid-1870s. By 1877, wide strings which tied in a bow under the chin once again appeared on the bonnet.
The bonnet with diadem brim remained popular and another form—usually called the Directoire—which has the brim lowered so that it lies flat, close to but not touching the head, was also popular.
By the end of the decade, bonnets resembling hats had given place to a more definite bonnet form; the brim disappeared from the back and wide strings were once more tied beneath the chin.
The high-crowned hat disappeared in the mid-1870s, although versions of this form with lower, less sharply defined crowns were still being worn until the end of the decade. A new hat form for the second half of the 1870s was one with a larger crown and a medium brim which turned up at the back. A toque shape with a fairly high crown also became fashionable from 1877, and was worn resting high on the head. From 1878, a round crowned hat with wide brim turned up at one side, known as the Gainsborough, was worn and continued as a popular fashion into the 1880s.
Hats of the 1870s were more elaborately trimmed than hats of the 1860s. In the early years of the decade, both bonnets and hats were often trimmed with ribbons at the back, which hung over the chignon, in addition to other trimming. These disappeared in 1875.
After 1874, bonnets showed an increasing use of flowers in their trimming. “Simple field blossoms are the most fashionable this summer,” said the Englishwoman’s Domestic Magazine in 1875, but almost any kind of flowers may be found on them. The same journal commented in the following year that drooping foliage was worn, “a pleasant relief from the stiffness of the bonnets worn two years ago with high brim and formal flowers”.
In the second half of the 1870s, and in the 1880s, whole birds as well as parts of birds were used for the trimming of bonnets. Feathers were much used in the millinery of the 1880s, not only as trimmings but also as the fabric of the whole hat, particularly in the toque forms. Plush, a favorite fabric of the 1880s, was also much used for winter millinery, as it was for dresses, muffs and bags.
The earlier materials, velvet, felt, straw, all continued in use; but silk was not much used, apart from the light crepe of the much- trimmed dress bonnets. Lace was used as part of the fabric of the lighter bonnets, mingled with flowers and feathers. Beaver appeared again from 1887.
Straw hats and bonnets were much worn throughout the 1880s, when they lost their seasonal connection and appeared amongst winter as well as summer fashions. “Throughout the year, straw is the one material that never goes out and vast numbers of straw bonnets are made with rows of velvet alternating with the straw” (Woman’s World, 1888).
The coarser straw plaits were fashionable and fancy straw plaits in openwork patterns appeared again in the 1880s, but the openwork plaits of this period are heavier and less lace-like than the earlier openwork plaits of the 1850s.
The large hat with one side turned up, the Gainsborough, remained fashionable for almost the whole of the 1880s. From 1884, a new style of hat appeared, which was particularly characteristic of the 1880s, although the fashion journals insisted at first that it was a style suitable only to very young faces. This was the postilion or post-boy hat, with high crown like a flowerpot, and narrow brim.
Hats with this shaping of the crown were fashionable between 1884 and 1888. Some had a fairly narrow brim turned up at one side; some had the brim turned up at the back and straight in the front, a style called Directoire although it bore little resemblance to the bonnet which had been given that name a few years earlier; on others, the brim was turned back at each side. The high crown also appeared in the toque, with a wide banded brim.
In 1888, “The hats which are distinctively new have brims that widen in front and more closely resemble the sailor shape than any other. Some of these brims turn upwards like an inverted saucer” (Woman’s World, 1888). This style of hat with the brim jutting out over the face was a characteristic fashion of the years from 1888 to 1892.
Hats of the sailor shape, either with a high crown and a broad flat brim or with a flatter crown and medium brim, were “worn by the million” in 1887. Severely plain versions of this shape, in stiffened straw with a ribbon band, were worn for yachting and tennis and, by 1890, hats in this style had become generally worn, not only for all summer sports but with the plainer and more practical styles of everyday dress.
In bonnets the style of 1880 continued until 1884. During the mid-1880s, bonnet crowns also grew higher, though less noticeable than those of hats. Brims often made a pointed shape over the forehead from 1887. A fashion for bonnets without strings, which came again in 1888, makes it difficult to distinguish between a bonnet and a toque of this date. The toque was a fashion for younger women, who also wore the very small bonnets without crowns which were once again fashionable by 1888.
Particularly characteristic of the bonnets of the early 1880s was the edging of the bonnet brim with beads. The strings of the bonnets at this time were wide. Ribbons, feathers and flowers were all used as trimmings. In 1888 it was said that “nothing in flowers is a la mode unless it looks as if it had just been gathered in the garden and tied up loosely”, and that “fashionable hats all resemble walking gardens” (Woman’s World, 1888).
Lace was often used to trim straw bonnets and hats, as well as being used with plush and velvet. The brims of straw bonnets and hats of this decade were often lined with velvet and hats of the late 1880s sometimes had trimming beneath the brim. For hats of more informal wear, silk scarves were used as trimming, loosely knotted around the crown. The arrangement of the trimming is a distinguishing mark of hats and bonnets of the second half of the decade.
By 1890, the bonnets were very small, often almost non-existent, or hidden beneath their trimmings of bows or ribbon, flowers, feathers and lace. The difference between a bonnet and toque of this time was marked only by the strings of the bonnet, now narrow—an inch wide or less—and fixed well at the back. By the end of the century, the bonnet with strings had become a middle-aged fashion.
Learn how to make an 1880s bustle era hat with this online class from Historical Sewing
Late Victorian 1890s Hats
The hats of the 1890s show great variety of shape and size. After 1892 the hat with the brim jutting widely over the face in front went out of fashion. Wide-brimmed hats were still worn, with the brim turned up sometimes at one side, sometimes at both sides, so that the under brim was visible. From the mid-1890s, these wide-brimmed hats were worn placed slightly sideways.
The still popular sailor shapes, with flat crowns and straight brims of medium width, were worn straight on the head. Witch- crowned hats, that is, hats with crowns pointed in a cone-shape, were fashionable in the mid-1890s.
A crown called “yeoman“, which widened at the top, was fashionable in 1896, and another very characteristic crown of this year was the hour-glass crown. The boat-shape, with brim turned up at the sides, still remained a popular fashion, particularly made in felt as a walking or cycling hat.
In 1896 a high-crowned version of this style with the crown cloven, a little like a man’s trilby hat, came into fashion. A cloven-crowned hat with flat brim was also worn. Hats with wide brims upturned in front appeared in 1898. If the brim was not upturned, it now often had a curving tilted line from left to right, or was curved up on each side from the centre.
Toques with high crowns were worn in the mid-1890s, and three-pointed or four-pointed toques were also a fashion of these years. By the last years of the century, the toque was larger, with a soft, full crown, and often with a wide turned-back brim and high trimming.
The openwork straws which had been fashionable in the 1880s continued to be worn in the 1890s. Straw, chip, velvet and felt were the chief materials used for hats and bonnets but, for the lighter summer millinery, net, chiffon and lace were often used. Flowers were still used in large quantities for trimming: “Hats continue to look like flower-gardens” (Woman at Home, 1896).
Violets were particularly fashionable in 1890, and bunches of currants were another favourite trimming of this year. Throughout the decade there was a fashion for a single high ornament in the trimming, an aigrette of lace or ribbon, a high cock’s feather, or one or two ostrich plumes.
Bonnet Veils Bonnet veils were worn in part as a protection against sun and dirt, in part as an added elegance for the bonnet and head. Those worn in the 1830s were particularly decorative. Many examples of them survive, but they are not always recognized as bonnet veils. They are large, for wearing with the wide-brimmed bonnets, about a yard square, though usually not an exact square; along one side there is a hem to take a drawstring of narrow silk ribbon, and the other sides have a bordering pattern.
They are, understandably, often mistaken for aprons. They were made in blonde lace, in machine-made net with embroidered patterns, or in figured silk gauze. Often the ground was patterned within the border. They were white, cream, pale pink or mauve, but during the 1830s there was a very large proportion of black veils.
Plain dark blue and green gauze veils were also regarded as suitable for country wear, when protection from the sun rather than decoration was the main concern. Large veils were worn until the mid-1840s, but they then became about half their former size.
By 1860, a semicircular bonnet veil was the usual form, just large enough to reach the chin, and black was once again popular. Veils were less worn with the hats of the 1870s and 1880s, but they became more fashionable and larger in the 1890s. The veils of this period were usually clear net, with small spot patterns.
“Uglies” Another, less decorative, protection from the sun, was used in the 1840s and 1850s. This was a narrow shade, four half-hoops of cane, with silk, usually blue, gathered over them so that it folded into a single half-hoop. It was worn on the front of the bonnet, the two ends tying together beneath the chin. It was known as an “ugly” and was seen mainly at the seaside, where it made an amusing miniature of the hoods which were attached to bathing machines to conceal the bathers’ entry into the water.
Continue reading about 1900-1910s hats.
Victorian Hat Resources
Hat shapes- make basic Victorian hat shapes with these patterns
How to alter plain straw hats into Victorian-era shapes
Make a bonnet from a straw hat