Women first began wearing the cloth head coverings called bonnets during the 1700s, but they are most strongly identified with the nineteenth century. Designed to protect the head and hair from sun, wind, and rain, bonnets differed from hats because they did not sit on top of the head, but were fitted around the head, usually tying under the chin with long, decorative ribbons. Like hats, bonnets had a brim around the crown in the front, but sewn to the back, instead of a brim, was a piece of fabric called a curtain, which protected the wearer's neck.
A bonnet's primary function was to cover a woman's head and even part of her face, both for modesty and to protect it from the weather. However, bonnets were also highly decorative fashion accessories. One of the most ornate of all bonnets was the spoon bonnet, which was introduced during the early 1860s. One of the most popular women's hats of the American Civil War (1861–65) era, the spoon bonnet had a wide front brim that rose straight up from the crown, giving the bonnet the shape of a shallow spoon. While providing little protection from sun or rain, the underside of the tall brim could be decorated with ruffles, lace, bows, and silk flowers, making the spoon bonnet frame the wearer's face prettily. Because it had little use except as decoration, the spoon bonnet was largely worn by wealthy women, or young women who wanted to wear the latest fashions.
The spoon bonnet was the last nineteenth-century bonnet that was styled to cover the head. By the 1880s, as women's hairstyles became more elaborate, few women wanted to cover them up, and they began to wear smaller bonnets which sat on top of the head, more like a traditional hat. Finally the bonnet disappeared to be replaced by modern hats whose only function was decoration.
FOR MORE INFORMATION
Langley, Susan. Vintage Hats & Bonnets 1770–1970. Paducah, KY: Collector Books, 1997.