By Rose de Paulsen
A personal pastime of mine is watching costume analysis on YouTube. From the likes of Mina Le, Kaz Rowe, Karolina Żebrowska to Micarah Tewers, historical costume political commentary and garment creation feeds the inner historical costumer in me instilled from my experience at York University Theatre program. I remember in early 2020 many of the creators I follow spoke about the newer adaptation of Little Women and its Oscar for Best Costuming design despite costume historians’ critique. There were no bonnets. Not one.
In an article by Amanda Hess, where she interviews Greta Gerwig, the director of Little Women (2019) says:
“…I didn’t use any bonnets, because I don’t love bonnets,” Gerwig said. “I just don’t like ’em. I feel like I’m allowed to not do things I don’t like.”
And she is absolutely right, if she does not like something in her movies, she should not be forced to include it. But in my, and many others, defense of bonnets, bonnets are not one type of style. Like a hijab, that can come in an endless amount of looks and styles, a bonnet is a general term for a head covering. But then why is there so much distaste for bonnets? If they have endless possibilities, why not experiment with bonnets in fashion?
The simple answer is our culture in Canada and other parts of North America has a lot of misconceptions about women’s historical fashions. Corsets have gotten a similar bad reputation, despite many costume historians debunking the falsehoods, many people still see them as oppressive creations. Despite many historical accounts, many of the bonnet critiques come from the same place. Some find them stuffy, or prudish, words that tend to describe a bygone era. Many might think that bonnets were created for decency reasons, or to hide one’s hair. But multiple sources cite the purpose was for hair protection and sun protection.
Bonnets in Canada had their start as just that. Most settlers, especially those in the sunny prairies, could not afford to have the chicest of European fashions. In memoirs compiled by S. L. Matthews in Bound to Improve”: Canadian Women’s Prairie Memoirs and Intersections of Culture, History and Identity (2001) about Canadian settler women’s experience on the prairies, Matthews notes that In the difficult times to source garments, many women were skilled in sewing. This was not limited to just mending, many women could make new garments, from old or from scratch. There is an inherent value in hand made garments and fashions that is rarely discussed now that machines can mass produce garments. Bonnets were not exclusive to upper-class individuals, almost every woman had a bonnet, and the working-class women required them even more for their sun and hair protection. Because of this, many women would have had to make their own bonnets. The memoirs Matthews compiles redresses the inaccurate prevailing narrative around Canadian settler women, their views and roles were not monolithic. The way they create their garments would have their personality and story woven into it.
Religion played a huge part in the colonization of North America, which might be one of the reasons we relate the bonnet to religious significance. We think of colonizer coming to North America with bonnets on. There are bonnets made explicitly for modesty purposes, but many of the bonnets began to transform into ornamental accessories (Palmer, 2004). In Ontario, where a lot of the upper-class resided, many milliners would create elaborately decorated bonnets to compete with the rising trend of materialism. The colonization of Ontario enabled the settlers to have social mobility where in Europe they had little to none and the bonnets, like other elements of fashion, provided agency for women to express themselves. Silk flowers, ribbons, lace, pearls, and trims were among the many favourite decorations to add to the bonnets. There were also different bases for the bonnet itself, straw being popular though expensive, while some had cardboard or fibre padding. Smaller businesses were the biggest producers of hats and bonnets, usually made by hand. Of course, bonnets were diverse in shapes colours and purposes but despite this, fashions changed, and bonnets fell out of favour by the 1890s.
Like every change in fashion, reasons are unclear, like the corset, the culprit could have been ideological. Articles in the 1870’s reported bonnets as “ridiculous” and creating an “alarming look of insanity” (Rush 1982). Rush connects the critiques on fashion during that time with an ideological shift that occurred in North American colonies. A large majority of women had domestic duties, and extravagance was frowned upon. Like with all garments handmade or altered, bonnets often express the wearer’s personality. Historically, women have always been scrutinized for their dress, with corsets it seems many were gaslit to believe they were oppressive or physically dangerous, when a properly fitted corset enabled women to participate in work and sports they could not have before.
So then why is there still little love for bonnets? Though historical bonnets can come off as outdated, they were anything but oppressive. Like all headwear trends past and present they were a way of expressing oneself through decoration and style. These handmade and intricately created pieces highlighted women’s individuality in a time where oppression critiqued every autonomous action. Bonnets should be given a second chance in the media; they are protective and expressive, and they do not deserve their bad wrap.
Hess, A. (2019, December 20). How Greta Gerwig built her ‘Little women’. The New York Times. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2019/12/20/movies/little-women-inspirations.html
Matthews, S. L. (2001). “Bound to improve”: Canadian women’s prairie memoirs and intersections of culture, history and identity (Unpublished doctoral thesis). University of Calgary, Calgary, AB. doi:10.11575/PRISM/24485
Palmer, A. (2004). Fashion: A Canadian perspective. University of Toronto Press.
Rush, A. (1982). Changing Women’s Fashion and Its Social Context, 1870-1905. Material Culture Review, 14. Retrieved from https://journals.lib.unb.ca/index.php/MCR/article/view/17088