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Easter Bonnets


Humans are, at best, inefficient animals. We are born without protective coats, with neither teeth nor talons sufficient to preserve us. While occasionally handsome to each other, I doubt we evoke much admiration from other species who must note with distain our lack of speed, poor hearing, mediocre eyesight and inability to pick up a scent.

Humans, alas, had to find other ways to express our superiority and not the least of our inventions has been clothing. Lacking glorious plumage or rich, thick coats of fur, we have nevertheless created for ourselves garments meant to meet the demands of every occasion—from formal balls to the roughest occupation. We encase our tender feet in summer sandals and in thermal boots. But why did we invent hats?

It could be argued that our heads are the best protected parts of our bodies. Thick hair covers our pates for at least part of our lives. Nevertheless, Neolithic cave paintings dating back to 8000-4000 BCE show women wearing hats. Why?

One has to suspect vanity. The irony of the situation is that while hats have waxed and waned over the millennia, exhibiting both extravagant complexity and great austerity, their association with Easter and the celebrated Easter Bonnet, goes back to St. Paul’s command that women achieve modesty and simplicity through covering their heads.

“But if a woman have long hair, it is a glory to her: for her hair is given her for a covering.” That phrase, found in I Corinthians, would seem to suggest that a woman’s hair was, in itself, desirable. But in the same book, St. Paul admonishes that Corinthian women must cover their hair while praying and his was to be the last word on the subject.

I Timothy, probably written later than Paul, reinforces the point: “Likewise, I want women to adorn themselves with proper clothing, modestly and discreetly, not with braided hair and gold or pearls or costly garments.” Women who did not wear hair coverings were interpreted to be prostitutes or adulteresses.

Paradoxically, this insistence on modesty and discretion ultimately led to outrageous expressions of feminine vanity and wealth. Wearing new clothes at Easter is seen by some historians to be a physical expression of renewal, the promise of spiritual renewal and redemption. But, human nature being what it is, the purchase of new clothes soon became a matter of pride. In 1596, Thomas Lodge complained in his pamphlet, Wits Miserie, “The farmer that was contented in times past with his Russet Frocke & Mockado sleeues, now sels a Cow against Easter to buy him silken geere for his Credit.”

During the reign of Marie Antoinette, hairstyles—and hats—rose to ridiculous heights and Rose Bertin became the first milliner to the “stars” of her day, one of the first exporters of French fashion. She designed fantastic headdresses, often based on current events, at equally fantastic prices—hats that became symbolic of the excesses that led to the French Revolution.

At one point, to show support for the American Revolution, French women even adopted the outlandish style of wearing hats formed like model ships cresting the waves of their wigs.

You could have said the French aristocracy had lost their heads over fashion and things became much more subdued following the Revolution. The voluminous gowns worn at court disappeared, replaced by the narrower silhouettes of the First Empire. And hats, correspondingly, became lesser. In a recent talk in Barkhamsted, clothing historian Kandi Carle said it is possible to look at the hairdos of an era and match the bonnets of the era to them. In the 1800s, when the simplified Empire style was all the rage, with its fitted bodice ending just below the bust and long and a loosely fitting skirt that skimmed the body, hair was no longer piled in great billows on top of the head. Instead it was tightly coiled on the crown of head. Correspondingly bonnets rose to new heights at the rear of the head and sloped forward.

“Under Marie Antoinette, hats looked like cake toppers but then things went wrong in France and if you looked like these wealthy folks you might have a date with Madame Guillotine,” Carle said.

Later, in the Civil War era, when hairstyles called for buns at the nape of the neck, bonnets settled back closer to the top of the head and had deep brims that shaded the face, preserving the milky, white complexions that signaled that you had sufficient wealth not to have to work in the fields.

Indeed, hats have always signaled social status. Society women might have a hat for different occasions and would surely have bought a new chapeau for Easter but ,for the middling and lower classes, it might mean recycling an older hat, fitting it out with new flowers and ribbons for a fresh look. Ribbons were an effective means of achieving the renewal that spring promised.

“Spring is pre-eminently the season for ribbons," proclaimed The American Silk Journal in February 1900. As the official trade publication of the American Silk Association, the Journal encouraged the use of ribbons in clothing and accessories. Ribbons were relatively inexpensive and could be easily changed or added to update a hat or garment. At a time when the Easter Parade really was a stroll down the most fashionable street in town to show off spring finery, silk ribbons were an affordable luxury that let nearly everyone participate.

The well-dressed woman of 1911 wore hats that may have used 10 or 12 yards of ribbon, much of it proudly provided by the Cheney Brothers, one of the country’s largest silk mills, founded in 1838 in South Manchester CT.

During the first decades of the 20th century, a woman's hat was the most important finishing touch to her ensemble. The Millinery Trade Review—one of several millinery journals to arise in New York around that time—presented an illustrated monthly column by a young man named Ora Cné, a professional millinery “trimmer.” One column contained instructions for 18 bows with descriptive names such as the pineapple, the battle ax, the head of wheat and the mosquito.

Madelyn Shaw, curator of textiles in the Division of Home and Community Life at the Smithsonian, has written that consumers had “an almost overwhelming selection of ribbon styles to choose from: glacé, tinsel-edged, ombré, brocade, grosgrain, moiré fancies, luster, ciré, reversibles, panne, chiné, gauze, and changeable were only some of the varieties available. With their bright colors and vast variety, ribbons were often touted as “the conscientious choice to make in millinery trimmings over bird feathers.”

Indeed, the horrible destruction of some of the nation’s most beautiful bird species to provide feathers for women’s hats led to the founding of the Massachusetts Audubon Society in 1896 followed by a national organization in 1905. The October 1903 issue of The American Silk Journal described a wide satin ribbon dotted with colorful birds, and noted, “(F)or those who would like to wear proscribed birds and don't care to run up against the Audubon Society, the idea suggests endless possibilities.”

But the good times did not roll for long for the makers of ribbons. In the 1920s, bobbed hair and tubular silhouettes led to simplified clothing and trimmings and greatly reduced the use of ribbon. Close-fitting, brimless millinery required only a band and perhaps a flat ribbon bow or cockade not the eight to ten yards of fancy patterned ribbon on a single hat. In this contracting market, ribbon manufacturers turned to new fibers and manufacturing techniques or went out of business.

As went the ribbon industry, so went hats. An Easter bonnet remained de rigueur until the middle of the last century. Silhouettes varied, brims became broader and narrower but a new hat, usually accompanied by a new dress or suit, was a necessity when attending Easter religious services. Then came the late 1960s …

The Baby Boomers were ready to change the world and they were not about to do it in a flower-bedecked hat and white gloves. In today’s more casual society, Easter bonnets are becoming harder to find as fewer and fewer women bother with the tradition. Even the Catholic Church, which started the whole business in the First Century, relaxed its Code of Canon Law in 1983 to remove the requirement that women wear head coverings in church.

Next weekend New York City will reenact a tradition that stretches back 130 years when it holds its annual Easter Parade. The parade, once a fashion show for the city’s elite in which women would wear their finest regalia, has morphed into an expression of personal taste that—rather like a royal wedding—ranges from elegant to outrageous, albeit without the conservatism of the Queen of England to restrain excesses.

The participants often wear weird costumes and wander around the street, their headpieces sometimes including even live rabbits or pet snakes—a far cry from the elegant bonnets immortalized in the words of Irving Berlin’s song, Easter Parade, which proclaimed, “In your Easter bonnet, with all the frills upon it / You'll be the grandest lady in the Easter parade.”