In early America a woman thought herself only partially dressed if she left her home without a covering for her head, even if it was only a simple white cap. But hats were considered more than a fashion accessory; they were functional.
|photo by Luigi Crespo|
LINEN CAPS and cotton kerchiefs were worn for indoor work, such as cooking and cleaning, but when stepping outside a lady often required greater coverage for sun shade or warmth, depending on the season. In that case, she might don a QUILTED HOOD. For shading delicate faces and necks, a wide-brimmed, flat-crowned STRAW HAT was the fashion, although not always practical, as it could be swept away with the slightest of winds. These crowns were typically so flat, in fact, that some rose only about a half-inch off the brim. They could be worn with the hat brim straight out; but more often, the brim would be drawn around the face like a bonnet, tied down with ribbon strings and then fastened under the chin or behind the head.
Braiding straw for hats such as these became an occupation of many women and a good means for them to earn, being a task they could pick up along with their usual domestic chores. Many did a brisk business selling their hats to local stores. Skilled straw weavers learned different weaving patterns and the art of wielding a handheld splitting tool. The finest of these types of straw hats were woven from imported Leghorn straw. Ordinary wheat straw produced a coarser finish, yet it served its purpose just as well.
Straw hats were simply dressed with a band of ribbon around the crown, but experienced milliners might line the under brim with a patterned fabric of cotton or silk. For a more elaborate style, the hat would be covered entirely in silk so as to disguise the straw and then trimmed with silk or paper flowers and perhaps a delicate bit of netting. Every season called for new linings, more elaborate trimmings—silk, crepe, feathers and ribbons.
Felt hats in white or black were made similar to those of straw. The COCKED HAT was a popular 17th century style and was worn mostly for traveling or riding. It looked much like a man’s tricorn with three sides of its brim turned up toward the crown. The upturned brim might be trimmed with braid, ribbon or fur and even an elaborate ostrich plume.
The CALASH originated in England, where the latest hairstyles grew so large they created a demand for bonnets which could cover the head without mussing the coiffure. Calash bonnets were usually made of green silk stretched over hoops of cane. The fabric in back of the calash was gathered together and held in place with a button or a bow. It was drawn up over the head by the pull of a cord, but when the wearer moved indoors, she could push it off to fall back in folds like the hood of a calash or gig carriage. The calash was introduced by the Duchess of Bradford at around 1765 and it remained in fashion throughout the Revolutionary War until the early 1800s.
The Federal period brought new styles. The wide-brimmed hats of the 18th century were replaced with close-fitted bonnets, one of the most popular being the POKE BONNET. Though the style was not entirely new, it came into widespread popularity during this time as being the most engaging of ladies’ hats and boasted a stiff, projecting brim that surrounded the face like a funnel and was tied in a wide bow under the chin with its ribbon straps.
The COAL SCUTTLE BONNET was tied in the same way but had a shorter brim and the hat was shaped like that of a coal scuttle. TURBANS, adorned with ostrich plumes, pearls and pins, also came into fashion but were not very long-lived. The BONAPARTE HAT was helmet-shaped and trimmed with a laurel wreath. At times, it would be worn cocked to one side.
These are just some of the more popular hats of early America. Of course, like in our modern times, new styles developed and changed frequently as many local village milliners copied the fashions of Boston, New York, London and Paris.
Lisa Norato is the multi-published author of Prize of My Heart, an inspirational, seafaring historical from Bethany House, set during the Federal era. A life-long New Englander, Lisa lives in a historic village with homes and churches dating as far back as the eighteenth century.