Wherein Sharon tries to define Hats and Bonnets

Wherein Sharon tries to define Hats and Bonnets

Continuing the theme of my blog on hat making – Millinery: A History of Headwear and the Profession – today I shall talk about the various styles of headwear worn by women during the Regency. First, before getting to the specifics and pretty photos, I shall try to shed some light on the differences between a hat and a bonnet. Duh! you may be thinking, but trust me, it isn’t as clear cut as you think.

Showdown of a Hat vs. a Bonnet

A good place to begin figuring out word puzzles is to look at the etymology for each word … usually, that is! According to the OED, the Old English, Latin, and Proto-Germanic words that all evolved into the word hat meant a “hood, cowl, head covering, helmet” and far pre-dated the word bonnet. Thus, for most of head-covering history, the general term for something worn on the head was a hat.

In the early 15th century, the Old French bonet originated, the meaning a “kind of cap worn by men and women” and was part of the term chapel de bonet, or “a kind of cloth used as a headdress.” It was also closely tied to the words used for the material itself.

The etymology for these two words gives a hint as to why a loose fabric or flexible straw head covering is typically called a “bonnet” versus a firmer, helmet-like one being a “hat.” In fact, in searching Merriam-Webster and other dictionaries, the standard definition of a HAT is, “a covering for the head usually having a shaped crown and brim.” A BONNET, on the other hand, is dictionary defined as, “a cloth or straw hat tied under the chin and worn by women and children.”

Most often when reading essays on bonnets versus hats, the chin ties are noted as the prime distinguishing feature. Oh, if only it were that simple! For example, check out the two fashion plates below (two of many era plates) showing what are clearly firm crown and brim examples of various shapes and sizes, all of which have chin ties. Are they bonnets? Are they hats?


Other sources maintain that it is the combination of chin ties with a not-firm crown and wide brim that make it a bonnet rather than a hat. Admittedly, there are fewer fashion plate examples of loose cloth or straw head toppers lacking a chin tie (not counting obvious turbans and house mop caps), but as seen in the two fashion plates below, they did exist.


Additional features noted as commonly associated with bonnets are that the forehead is not covered and the back of the head is. Again, obviously this is not always the case. However, the usual claim that a hat is stiffer, worn more on the top of the head rather than further back, and with a brim spanning the whole width of the crown in a horizontal fashion, is clearer to discern. All in all, it seems to me that the obvious conclusion is that the broader terms “hat” and “bonnet” are essentially interchangeable. LOL!

Types of Hats and Bonnets

Moving on to the types of hats/bonnets popular or available during the Regency, this too is rather difficult to pin down with precise clarity. As I have often believed when it comes to “fashion” during past eras, it can’t be all that different than fashion today. Meaning, for one, it was constantly changing and widely variable. Additionally, while those of extensive wealth and in high society may have tossed their hats into the garbage bin after wearing once and as soon as a new edition of La Belle Assemblee arrived, I doubt most women could afford to do that, or they were too sensible and practical. And I wonder if the magazines of the period were a bit like Vogue or Marie Claire today, in so far as showing garments the average woman would never wear even if she could afford it.

“Look here, I have bought this bonnet. I do not think it is very pretty; but I thought I might as well buy it as not. I shall pull it to pieces as soon as I get home, and see if I can make it up any better…. And when I have bought some prettier-coloured satin to trim it with fresh, I think it will be very tolerable.” ~Lydia Bennet in Pride & Prejudice (Jane Austen)

Whatever the case, here are some of the unique styles from the era.

Lace caps, mob caps, or draped caps were made of lace, white linen or delicate muslin, and trimmed with ribbon. They could be ruffled, embroidered, or plain, depending on who wore them and their status. Caps were worn by women of all ages and marital status, although most frequently associated with married ladies, and were primarily an indoor, casual head covering. 

Capotes, or scoop-shaped bonnets, were popular in the early Regency and first made their appearance in the 1790s and continued throughout the 19th century. The capote was melding of the soft, unstructured cap and a slightly more rigid bonnet. The brims were always narrow and made of stiffly reinforced fabric, and merged smoothly into the crowns, which were soft and shaped to fit the head. The hats accommodated the modish hair styles of that era, which were short or piled on top of the head. They rarely, if ever, included chin ties. Generally made to be worn outdoors, capotes were also worn as evening headwear early in the 19th century.

Late 1810s French cartoon lampooning the poke bonnet.

The poke bonnet was essentially an evolution of the capote as the brim grew deeper and more prominent. It is first mentioned in an 1807 fashion report in The Times of London. The crown remained small, usually soft (unless of straw), and snug to the head whereas the brim elongated further and further until completely shielding the face. Over time the brim reached ridiculous depths until occluding the wearer’s peripheral vision, prompting caricatures such as the one to the right. Poke bonnets, strictly speaking, were narrow-brimmed insofar as the diameter of the brim. See the examples below.

As styles continued to change with clever milliners and designers creating something new, the poke bonnet brims widened and flared outward, among other changes. As can be seen in the three examples below, crown shapes covered the gamut as well.

The fact is, the basic bonnet — whether of the “poke” variety or with a more modest brim — had no limit in shape, construction materials, or adornments. By far the most common style was the sunbonnet. Made of fabric or straw (or a combination of both), for casual and semi-formal wear, ladies donned a lightweight bonnet for protection. My various Pinterest boards have hundreds of examples from fashion plates to portraits to extant hats now safely kept in museums. Below are a few favorites from the Austen movies we love.

I believe that is enough for this installment of Regency headwear. Another day I will tackle stovepipe hats, turbans, calash bonnets, jockey caps, riding hats….. yes, it is nearly exhaustive! The vast majority of hats were such a mishmash of style that they didn’t fall under a defined category or name, so attempting to label them specifically is next to impossible, but I can give it the old college try!



Sharon Lathan

Sharon Lathan is the best-selling author of The Darcy Saga, a ten-volume sequel series to Jane Austen’s Pride & Prejudice.

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