Oh Where, Oh Where…. What Should I Wear…

On My Head?

As we become more aware that there were many types of headwear in the mid nineteenth century, we have to ask “what did women wear in different situations?”

This post will focus on the 1850s through about 1865 with further focus on situations most commonly interpreted. At this time, the most common options for headwear included:

  • A fashion bonnet (silk, sheer, straw)
  • A fashion hat (of which there were a variety)
  • A sunbonnet (slat or corded)
  • A fashion cap (evening and formal wear)
  • A “house” cap
  • Nothing
  • Specialty headwear (riding hats, swimming hat, etc.)

When deciding which piece of headwear is appropriate, we must look at what the women of the era did. This can be through visual references such as situational photographs, paintings, and illustrations, as well as textual references, bith fiction and non-fiction. These resources will help us understand the tendencies for one (or more) types of headwear for a particular situation over others, and the factors that contributed to those choices. In my ongoing research, I find there is a two key factors influencing/determining headwear choice:

  • Personal or Public Space (Location)
  • Fashionableness of the Woman

First and foremost, in my opinion, is Personal vs Public Space as this will determine the question of headwear or no headwear in most instances. If you are in a personal space such as your home or your place of business, you do not need to wear anything on your head. Let me repeat that: You do not need to wear anything on your head.

If you are confused and thinking “but I was told I must always have something on my head”, let me assure you that by the 1850s and into the 1860s visual evidence shows that the vast majority of women did not wear anything on their head when at home, sans hairdressing items such as pins and a net. A simple or decorative cap may be seen on some older women or those who simply choose to, but these women are in the minority. Reenacting/interpreting women may have other reasons for choosing to wear a cap. This could include the need to conceal modern hair styles, be it cut or color, a lack of confidence in their ability to dress their hair, or to protect their head.

The next factor, Fashionableness of the Woman, is the greatest for determining which type of headwear is worn. It simply comes down to: the more fashionable a woman is, the more types of headwear she is likely to own. The less fashionable a woman is, the fewer types of headwear she will own. A less fashionable woman of modest means may have an everyday bonnet and a nice bonnet, both sensible yet flattering to suit her. A more fashionable woman may have more pieces of millinery reflecting current styles, as her income allows. Of course family income and societal expectations play their parts. A fashionable woman may or may not have the finances to purchase all the current, fashionable styles she wishes. In this case, she may need to get creative in her restyling or selecting. Vice-versa, a woman of comfortable means may not be as fashionable, of more modest fashion desires. She may have only as many millinery pieces as expected of her societal station.

Now, let’s look at some common situations. (I will add additional images as I assemble them.)

At Home – Sewing, Reading, Receiving Company, Etc.

Your home is your private space. Here, you do not have to wear anything on your head. You may simply dress your hair with or without a plain net**. No cap, bonnet, or hat should be worn at this time.

If someone comes to visit or make a call, you do not need to put anything on your head. Your visitor would leave their headwear in place for the duration of a short visit. If the visit were longer and/or more involved, for example working of comforts or taking a meal, their bonnet or hat could be removed.

At Home – Cleaning and such inside

As with the above situation, your home is your personal space, you do not need to wear any headwear.

If your activity is a particularly dirty one, including a lot of dust or dirt or such, you may choose to protect your hair with a cap or kerchief. If you choose a cap, choose one that may be cleaned easily. If choosing a kerchief be sure to learn the appropriate ways to tie it.

At Home – Outside – collecting eggs, gardening, etc.

The spaces around your home are also your personal space. This can include your yard, gardens, orchard, etc.. As such, these personal spaces do not require headwear. Selecting to wear something on your head is a choice. Of course, from a modern perspective we know it is advisable to protect the head, face, eyes, and neck from the sun.

The most common protective headwear garment women had was the sunbonnet. The vast majority of women (dare I say nearly all) owned either a slat or corded sunbonnet. This is the go-to choice for protective wear.

I am often asked whether a woman would have worn a plain straw hat instead. While I can not say absolutely not, I am also hesitant to say yes. The type of hat (domed, oval crown with a wider, shapeless brim) many modern women are picturing didn’t actually exist. The fashion hats for women were rather small in the 1860s. These were not good for sun protection. The fashion hats of the 1850s were much larger, but they were also very fashionable and not likely owned extensively. Men’s hats were primarily blocked in shaped styles, in men’s larger sizes. These larger sizes would slip and shift uncomfortably on the average woman’s head. Between these aspects, I just don’t think what people are picturing actually happened much.

Making a Social Call, Visiting

If you are visiting or making a social call, you have left your own personal space, you are entering someone else’s space. You would leave your home with a fashion bonnet or hat on your head. This would be selected based on your fashionablity. When you arrive at your destination, you would leave your hat or bonnet on for the duration of your stay. The exception would be if the visit was something more involved such as a meal, a sewing circle, working on comforts.

A Society Meeting

A meeting such as a benevolence society, lady’s aide, a mite society, a temperance society, etc. is a public space. As such, you would leave your bonnet or hat on. This goes for a presentation as well.

Shopping in Town

Any excursion or walk through town, be it for shopping or other pursuits, is in a public space. Headwear is expected for this situation. Depending of your fashionablity and the weather, you may select a fashion bonnet, fashion hat, or sunbonnet. Photographs of town streets show women with a wide assortment of headwear from sunbonnets to out of fashion fashion bonnets to high fashion fashion bonnets.


Church is a public space where headwear is expected. Some will insist a fashion bonnet is the only exceptable option. I respectfully disagree. Photographic evidence shows women in both bonnets and hats in church. These photographs may be in more fashionable areas. At the same time, less fashionable or affluent areas could not rightly turn women away if they chose to wear a sunbonnet.

Recreational Activities- Public Gardens, Seaside, Watercure, etc..

I have previously written about hats worn in recreational situations as the fashions for each did evolve on their own. In short, most recreational activities were public, unless they took place on private property. As such, headwear was expected at the onset of the activity. This could be a fashion bonnet or hat. We do see in photographs and paintings that some women chose to remove their hat or bonnet as the activity became more relaxed.


Traveling, of course, takes place in public and a bonnet is necessary. I will offer a few notes regarding headwear selection for travel. If Traveling by rail, it is strongly advisable to not wear a white or otherwise light color bonnet. The soot from the engine will spot the fabric. Similarly, dusty travel will soil light color bonnets. Any travel with a length of time spent in high back seats will result in resting the head back. As such, a soft crown bonnet will be far more comfortable than a structured crown. A veil aides not only in protecting the face and eyes from soot and dust, it also allows some privacy from strangers and the relaxation of the eyes.

**A note regarding hair nets: A hair net, particularly a plain net, is part of you hair dressing items, not an item of headwear. In the context of this article, a plain hair net is considered part of your hair dressing, there for “nothing” on your head.

Published in: on April 7, 2022 at 9:53 am  Comments (3)  

3 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. I have a few questions: what of the morning caps and night caps and breakfast caps widely and frequently featured in Parisian and German (and sometimes American) fashion magazines? One would surely think that, at least in wealthy vibrant households, certain formalities would be observed, such as covering the head to some degree when hair was yet to be dressed – such as at breakfast or in the early morning. And if one were the lady of a fine house, did she not set the tone for respectability by covering her head even minimally during the day? And at night to protect the hair and bed linens, didn’t women require a night cap?

  2. Good question Traci.
    I only covered the most common situations interpreted at events in which the public would be in attendance. The morning routine, evening dinners, and formal events are not commonly interpreted at events. These are more likely to be needed at private events. I could cover those in a seperate post.
    To quickly address these situations – Each occasion or domestic situation has its own requirements, whether practical or by societal expectation. The fashion of wearing a cap through the day had decreased notably by the mid-century. A fashionable woman of means could, and likely did, choose to set aside the fashion of previous decades. While her household staff likely wore caps to protect their hair through the day, she did not need to. For evening occasions, such as an extended dinner, decorative headwear was worn to suit the dress. Again, this follows how fashionable the woman and situation were. If a woman was fashionable enough to change her dress for dinner, she may have changed her hair as well. If she did not change her dress for dinner, as the vast majority of women in the US did not, she likely did nothing different to her hair other than remove any protective covering she may have chosen.
    Night caps would fall under the catagory of bed wear or personal linens in my mind.

  3. Thank you so much!

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