January 17 is Wear a Hat Day. Hats are not much in vogue in our modern times, but in Regency England, a stylish bonnet was an essential part of any lady’s ensemble when she stepped out of doors. Married women and ladies of a certain age (late twenties and older) wore caps indoors. Shopping for hats and caps and keeping up with the latest style of trims and colors was de rigeur for ladies.
In Northanger Abbey, Isabella Thorpe told Catherine Morland, “I saw the prettiest hat you can imagine in a shop window in Milsom-Street just now—very like yours, only with coquelicot ribbons instead of green; I quite longed for it.”
Perhaps Miss Thorpe passed a shop that looked like the one represented in Alonso Perez’s painting, The Milliner’s Shop:
In the first ten years of the 19th Century, the poke-bonnet gained popularity. In an 1801 letter, Jane Austen wrote that she had a new bonnet, trimmed with white ribbon:
“I find my straw bonnet looking very much like other people’s, and quite as smart.”
Leghorn hats were also popular, featuring a large brim in front, and turned up behind in a soft roll in the French style, such as this bonnet:
Here are examples of different Regency-era bonnets, as depicted by various artists:
In Emma, Mrs. Elton hinted at the importance of wearing just the right hat for the occasion when she accepted Mr. Knightley’s invitation to pick strawberries at Donwell:
“It is to be a morning scheme, you know, Knightley; quite a simple thing. I shall wear a large bonnet, and bring one of my little baskets hanging on my arm. Here, —probably this basket with pink ribbon. Nothing can be more simple, you see.”
In her letters, Jane Austen wrote about re-trimming a cap:
I shall venture to retain the narrow silver round it, put twice round without any bow, and instead of the black military feather shall put in the coquelicot one, as being smarter.
By 1810 the plain cottage bonnet became more elaborate. Hats became higher and were decorated with more than fabric and ribbon. Hats sported flowers, puffed gauze, feathers, and gathered or plaited fabric.
This hat bears the fashionable poppy-red color Isabella Thorpe called “coquelicot” in Northanger Abbey:
In Mansfield Park, Miss Crawford explained to Edmund how easy it was to tell whether a woman is out in society based on her bonnet:
“Till now, I could not have supposed it possible to be mistaken as to a girl’s being out or not. A girl not out has always the same sort of dress: a close bonnet, for instance.”
From examples throughout Jane Austen’s books, we can see that a lady’s bonnet was not just a means for keeping the sun out of her eyes. Instead, it was a declaration of her station in life, her level of wealth and, perhaps, even her marital status.