Cloth Bonnets for Sun or Indoors

A vintage sunbonnet, which shows signs of wear.

I know next to nothing about millinery. However, a recent conversation with Linda Rahner about sunbonnets reminded me that I photographed several from a collection that has since been sold. The same collection had Victorian cloth bonnets which may have been made to be worn alone indoors, or under a hat, and it seems logical that their construction would inspire the cloth bonnets used for sun protection. So here are a few sunbonnets and — perhaps — some of their antecedents.
[Tip: If you ever try to search for sunbonnets online, be sure to limit your search by adding “-sue -baby.” Otherwise, Sunbonnet Sue quilts will dominate your results…. ]

This American photo from the late twenties or early 1930’s shows a woman, on the left, wearing a sunbonnet; on the right, her daughter wears trousers.

It's the 1930s. The woman on far right is wearing trousers. Her mother, far left, wears a sunbonnet.

Trying to date vintage sunbonnets must be a nightmare, because sunbonnets are still being made and sold. The needs of re-enactors, docents at historic sites, and participants in local history days have resulted in many commercial patterns for sunbonnets.

I’m pretty sure this one is “the real thing,”  because it is almost worn out.

A threadbare sunbonnet in grayish brown cloth. Its brim is stiffened with padding and diagonal machine quilting and sticks out quite a way to shade the face.

A close up of the worn sunbonnet. Some white selvedge shows in the ruffle.

Back of the worn brownish sunbonnet. The neck cover is not very long. I have no idea about its date except that it’s machine stitched.

This checked gingham sunbonnet is in very good condition — which makes me wonder if it was really worn for working outdoors.

This sunbonnet is made from striking fabric, so perhaps a reader can identify when it was probably made. It does appear to have been worn more than once. It is stiffened with padding and parallel rows of stitches.

Even this blurred photo shows that it would give the back of your neck good protection.

The rickrack trim on this blue sunbonnet makes me think it may be from the 1930’s — but other opinions are welcome!

This crisp sunbonnet is made of blue chambray and trimmed with rickrack. Perhaps it was a gift — “too good to wear” for yardwork.

Little girls continued to wear variations on sunbonnets in the 1940s.

My friend’s collection also included some white bonnets, definitely vintage, which I am utterly unqualified to date. However, some have long back flaps (like sunbonnets;) some have been stiffened with parallel rows of cording or quilting; and the basic coif shape goes back a long, long way. If you recognize the period for any of these, feel free to share your knowledge:

The simplest white bonnet or house cap:

One piece of fabric forms the front; another is gathered into a back. The stripes are woven into the cloth. The seam between the front and back is piped.

The front has a single ruffle trimmed with lace framing the face.

A closer view of the lace and fabric. Is it machine lace?  The ruffle is actually pleated into place rather than gathered.

Here’s a close up of the fabric — badly mended in one spot:

The fabric looks like linen to me. A hole was badly mended.

There is a drawstring in the back casing (and a French seam.)

Like the front, the back is trimmed with a single ruffle.

A more complex cap or bonnet looks similar from the front:

The front of this bonnet or cap is very simple . . .

But from the side, it’s another story:

Parallel rows of cording stiffen this cap. It also has a long flap in back, pleated rather than gathered.

A closer view of the cording.

The cording appears to be hand stitched.

I just discovered that a similar bonnet was illustrated in Godey’s Lady’s Magazine in 1857.

Is a cap like that one the ancestor of those sunbonnets?

This one — perhaps a house cap? — is too elaborate for farm work:

Definitely meant to be seen, this bonnet has ruffles and cording everywhere — even running down its back.

The be-ruffled bonnet seen from the front. If it was intended to be starched, what a nightmare to iron!

This is the ruffled bonnet seen from the rear. It has a long neck flap, too.

For all I know, one or more of those is really a night-cap….

It’s not quite fair to judge this last masterpiece (and it is one!) without starch, but, since starch attracts insects, it was washed thoroughly before being put into storage. Try to imagine the hand-embroidered lace freshly ironed and standing crisply away from the face:

A front view. The ties are very long.

A closer look at the hand-embroidered cutwork lace.

The same hat viewed from above; in addition to the long ties that go under the chin, there are ties ending in a bow on top.

A close up of the quilting which stiffens the brim.

A very chic cap or bonnet in profile — I’ll go out on a limb and say “probably late 1830s.”

The voluminous crown suggests that it was made to be worn over a hairstyle like this one:

Fashion plate from La Mode, Sept. 1838. The Casey Collection.

Back view of a tulle bonnet trimmed with marabou, The Lady’s Magazine, Feb. 1837. Casey Collection.

An assortment of bonnets from World of Fashion, Nov. 1838. Casey Collection.

An earlier cloth bonnet or coif can be seen in The Bonnet Maker, Costumes d’ouvrieres parisiennes, by Galatine, 1824. (Zoom in to see the details of her embroidered bonnet, and the corded bonnets in her hand.)

I no longer own my Godey’s  or Harper’s fashion plate anthologies, so I present all these photos for the enjoyment of those who do. Happy hunting.

P.S. If you have never visited the Casey Collection of Fashion Plates, there’s a link in my “Sites with Great Information” sidebar.




Filed under 1800s-1830s, 1830s -1860s fashions, 1860s -1870s fashions, 1870s to 1900s fashions, 1900s to 1920s, 1930s, Early Victorian fashions, Hairstyles, Hats, Hats, Mid-Victorian fashions, Uniforms and Work Clothes, Vintage Garments: The Real Thing

10 responses to “Cloth Bonnets for Sun or Indoors

  1. Nice post, thank you. I can add that the flap at back is known as a bavolet (French for curtain or flap). I have in my collection an antique sun bonnet I bought inexpensively at a local antiques market (along with two sets of antique long johns, which see good use at wintertime costumed events). My bonnet is well used but very clean, which I attribute to the fact that’s it’s easily washable.

  2. Fascinating! I particularly love the 1930s photo of new and old intersecting.

  3. The black/gray bonnet at the top of the page might be early 20th century (1900-1920-ish): The patterns I’ve seen for bonnets from that period often have very full, puffy, backs. Think the Sun-Maid Raisin girl, which is an update of a circa-1915 illustration.

    From the Unsung Sewing Patterns blog.

    The “striking fabric” might be a 1950s feedsack, but I’m not sure. It’s probably 1930s-1950s, anyway.

  4. Ruth

    My grandmother was making and wearing sunbonnets to work outside well into the late 70’s. If one of us girls was at her house she had extras for us to wear outside as well. Now I wonder what happened to them after she died in the early 80’s, I don’t remember seeing them after we cleaned her house out. She also wore nylon house dresses every day for as long as I can remember. She had other clothes, but was most comfortable in those, and she wore rolled stockings! She also had an “iron maiden” corset thing that lived on a dress dummy until Sunday when she wore it under her dress. That thing fascinated me for years. She had one pants suit that looked great on her, but she refused to wear it. And what a stash of fabric, much of which I still have nearly forty years later.

    • Our grandmas had a lot in common — including rolled stockings and nylon housedresses, but mine wore her corset every day. Hugging her was like hugging a barrel. In the 1950s, nylon was loved because it didn’t need to be ironed. I wonder how they prevented static cling?

      • Ruth

        I’ve never figured that one out! I had polyester clothes in the 70’s (something I try hard not to think about–shudder) and static was a problem! Especially in dry weather. I have one picture of grandma and grandad before they married, I think, and she is definitely a flapper. He was 6’2″ and she was 4’9″ so she stood on the running board of a Model T for the picture. Cracks me up every time I see it! I don’t know when she started to wear bonnets, probably after getting married and having kids. That’s when you tend to go back to things you learned as a child and she grew up in the era of bonnets and long dresses and living like the pioneers did. I know her family weren’t pioneers in that sense, she was half Choctaw/Cherokee and half Scots/Irish, so they had been in our part of the country for a few generations. Grandad’s sisters were flappers, too, but no bonnets! They were very modern career ladies and worked for the phone company, as did Grandma and Grandad.

      • Would you be willing to share that photo of your grandparents (or others) ? I often think about just doing a blog page of people with their cars — but I’m not good at identifying cars…. When I resize a photo for the blog, i make the longest side 500 @ 72 dpi

      • Ruth

        I wish I could, unfortunately I live in Washington state and all my pics are in Oklahoma. (Long story, moved out here 20 years ago because we couldn’t take the weather there but my family is still there.) I’m actually moving back there next month, though. I get to go through my storage that’s been there for over 30 years! When I can find my pics, which may be fairly easy as I think either my mom or my daughter has them I will see if you still want it. If I can find it earlier I will send it to you. And if you are looking for those kind of pics I suggest trying He has a lot of them and posts ones that are a hundred years old.

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