Jessamyn's Regency Costume Companion: early 1840s gown


The Bonnet.

Since for once I'm going to a daytime event at which I may be venturing outside, I thought it would be a very nice thing to have a bonnet.

The only ready-made bonnet bases I can find on-line are not really correct for this period at all - there are straw and felt "poke bonnets" floating around, but they are, typically for prefab reenactment wear, an amalgamation of elements of different decades without quite belonging to any of them!

Like everything else in circa-1840 fashion, bonnets were undergoing a transition. There is a basic poke-bonnet style that comes into fashion in the 1820s and survives through the very early 1840s, but the shape shifts quite a bit over that period. It begins as a very large, "wide-awake" brim and a very high, steeply-angled crown, and gradually the crown drops back on the head and the brim droops further toward the face, until finally in the 1840s the crown and the brim essentially level out and you get the "coal scuttle" style.

You can see the latter part of this progression in the fashion plates below, which date from 1836, 1838, 1840, and 1842 respectively (left to right).

Thus I'm aiming for something that still has a distinct brim and crown, but the crown shouldn't be pitched too high nor the brim too vertical. It's a little difficult to get a really clear idea of what these bonnets should look like from the fashion plates, but fortunately there are extant bonnets to fill in the details. I particularly like two that I've seen on the gorgeous antique-clothing site Vintage Textile. One is a fur-felt bonnet with bunches of lilacs or violets around the crown, and the other is a straw bonnet with beautiful floppy roses and a flowered ribbon that is currently available for sale (with more photos from different angles - they give the date as 1820-30, but it must be well into the '30s, as the bonnets of the 1820s invariably have excessively high-set crowns and huge, flaring brims). Click for closer views.

So, inspired by the instructions on The Costumer's Manifesto, I decided to tackle making a straw bonnet from scratch, or nearly. Since I'm trying to keep costs way, way down on this project, I did not go look at the lovely basket-making supplies at the local weaving-and-handicraft shop. Instead I bought two smallish $1.69 craft hats (the kind you're supposed to decorate and hang on the wall) at Ben Franklin and took them apart for their braid! However, since the braid was so excessively cheap, I was able to splash out a bit on the trimmings. I got three bunches of wonderful "old roses" and a branch of - what, oversized lilac? Anyway, I'm completely in love with these trimmings, which are subtler in person and very reminiscent of the ones on the extant bonnets above. I think I spent a total of about $25 on the hats and trimmings - the price of one untrimmed, inaccurate straw "poke bonnet" from the sutlers. Of course, I still have a lot of work to do.

My first step was to start unraveling the hats. Their braid is simply overlapped and topstitched with chainstitch, which means that it pulls out pretty easily. The hardest part is not tearing up the braid, which is fairly brittle. I only pulled the first hat out until I got down to a flat circle the size I wanted the top of my crown to be - no reason to redo that part. I decided that I needed to sew the top of the crown separately from its body, but I didn't want to join them edge-to-edge, so I restitched an extra row of braid and steamed it on the ironing board until I got it eased over into the right shape. While I was at it, I steamed the rest of the braid flat (it was curved from being shaped into a brim).

Next I cut off the newly flattened braid and stitched it into a sort of tube. The Costumer's Manifesto recommends zigzag stitching, but I think it looks neater with regular straight stitching. I simply used white, as I didn't have a good match for the straw color and the original white stitching had not been particularly noticeable. (I did have to lengthen the stitches from 2.5 to 4, though.) To form my tube, I just held a loop of braid up to the top of the crown so that it matched in size, and then started stitching, around and around and around. I had to smoosh the tube slightly to fit it around the arm of the machine (with the swing-away plate off, of course, just as if I were doing a sleeve), but the straw held up.

When I got a few rows from the end, I started squeezing the rows closer together on one side of the cone. This is because I want the crown to be shorter on one side so it will meet the brim at an angle. Below you can see the finished "tube" and its top; the area where the braid is more closely overlapped; and a side view of the tube with its top on (although they're not stitched together yet), showing the shape formed by the increase in overlap.

At this point, I could attach the brim to the short side of the crown to make an early 1830s bonnet, or to the long side to make a late 1830s bonnet (which is what I will do). Next up: crown patterning.

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Copyright 2005 by David and Jessamyn Reeves-Brown. All rights reserved.