History of Sunhats

In Victorian Britain, a pale complexion was seen as a sign of health and wealth, and fashionable ladies of the time made every effort to shield themselves from the sun to keep their complexions milky-white. Bonnets became fashionable with ladies at the beginning of the 19th century, and were crafted from various materials, including straw, silk, cotton and felt. Bonnets were secured to the wearer’s head using two pieces of ribbon which were tied under the chin and were often embellished with ribbons, ruffles and flowers. As the popularity of bonnets grew, so did the size of their brims, enabling women to shade themselves not only from the sun’s glare but from the gaze of unwelcome onlookers, too! The team from North East Lincolnshire Councils (NELC) Safer and Stronger Communities have employed the talents of a local volunteer who has kindly created a replica version of a traditional 19th-century ladies bonnet. Such bonnets would have been worn by ladies living in or visiting Cleethorpes during this period.

Pictured: A photograph of a traditional 19th-century ladies bonnet.

The majority of-of middle-class women in the 19th century would have owned at least two bonnets, a straw one suitable for summer, and one made from a heavier fabric suitable for winter. Wealthy women, however, would have owned a variety of different bonnets, and coordinated them with specific outfits and occasions. By the 1930s the size of ladies’ bonnets had grown to huge proportions and were fast becoming less functional, and more ornamental. Bonnets worn by ladies during this period provided a degree of anonymity, concealing much of the wearer’s face, and eclipsing both her hair and side-profile. As a result, it was practically impossible for women wearing this type of bonnet to look left or right without physically turning their head.  By the 1850s, the size of bonnets, along with their overall appearance, was beginning to become significantly less extravagant, and by the 1860s, the proportion of ladies’ bonnets had decreased to such an extent that much of the wearer’s face and hair could now be seen. You would be forgiven for thinking that this could be the start of a more forward way of thinking with regards to women and fashion until you learn about the bavolette. During the mid-to-late 19th century, the back of a ladies’ neck was considered to be an erogenous zone and was therefore improper to have out on display. The bavolette was a curtain-like piece of material attached to the base of the bonnet which shielded the wearer’s neck from view, thus protecting her modesty. By the 1860s, parasols were becoming increasingly fashionable for wealthy ladies, and except for during cold weather, bonnets were beginning to go out of fashion. The popularity of the bonnet made a brief resurgence however in the 1870s, gaining favour with women who wanted to give off a more modest appearance. However, the popularity of the smaller, functional bonnet, was short-lived and quickly became associated with an undesirable matron-like appearance.

Nowadays, sun hats are proudly donned by men, women and children in a wide variety of fabrics and styles. Modern-day awareness of sun safety issues means that many people choose to wear a sun hat as a sensible precaution against conditions such as sunburn, sunstroke and skin cancer. The Fedora, the trilby, the baseball cap…bucket hat, sombrero, cloche… boater, Panama, turban…stetson, legionnaire or beret…these days, it would not be unusual to see any of these hat styles on people who are out and about on sunny days! Of course, the traditional sun bonnet style, (worn by those milky-skinned Victorian ladies of leisure) is by no means obsolete; however, nowadays, these cute bonnets are rarely worn by women and are more usually placed onto the heads of their cute babies and toddlers!