In the 1850s, outfits for women and men were topped off with a hat. Most children and all adults wore some kind of head covering in public. The bonnet was the most common hat worn by women. Made from a wide range of material from calico and straw to velvet and silk taffeta, the brim of the sun bonnet contained thin slats of wood or cardboard so that it stood out over the wearer’s face. This provided protection from the harsh sun of the open country. All bonnets were fixed with a curtain from 2 to 14 inches in length hanging down at the back to conceal the neck from the elements as well.
Winter bonnets were traditionally black and made to match or coordinate with different dresses. They were made with buckram frames – a stiff, heavy, reinforced wire that made the hat stand out away from the face. Bonnet trimmings consisted of ribbons, lace, feathers, flowers, fringe, or braid. The hat stayed on the head with the use of hatpins and a tie under the chin.
Hats were considered a vital fashion accessory throughout the nineteenth century. Women were consider only partially dressed if they left their homes without headwear. By the early 1860s, the bonnet was slowly being replaced with wider, taller, and more elaborate hats. White organdy garden hats with sprays of flowers were the style in the East. In the West, the Hussar hat was the rage. The Hussar was a low-brimmed military hat that was redesigned for ladies and included layers of lace and tulle. Straw hats from Paris were popular from coast to coast – fancy yellow straw and appliqued lace hats topped off many looks.
Newspaper editors in California cautioned impeccably dressed women with such hats not to overrate the attention they received from their fashions. “The girl who expects to win her way in life with her beauty and a grand hat alone may be disappointed,” they warned.
“To win and hold admiration you must first cultivate the gifts that nature has bestowed upon you. If you have a talent for music, develop it; learn to play some instrument; for many are more charmed by music than by handsome features or clothing. Pursue the same course with regard to painting, drawing, and designing, and if you have power to obtain useful knowledge in any direction, do it. I have heard young men in speaking of their lady acquaintances say, “Oh, they look well, but they don’t know anything.” There is no necessity for such a state of things; books are cheap and accessible. If you have to labor all day in a shop or store, still at odd intervals you can gather up an education and contend with greater difficulties than did Clay, Filmore, Webster and others of the greatest men. If you go through life a flying butterfly, how will you be spoken of by-and-by?”
Sacramento Bee, Sacramento, California – August 1882
Women wore special headwear indoors such as nightcaps, morning or breakfast caps, day caps, and dress caps, all considered proper for home use. Nightcaps were typically made of wool to keep the head warm while sleeping, and some were colored and topped off with a tassel. Day caps were made to show the back of the hair, which was usually pinned up into a bun. Dress caps were a part of semi-formal wear and were dainty pieces of material attached to the hair directly below the crown of the head.
A quality pair of shoes rounded out a lady’s daily costume and could often accentuate the overall look. Black or brown ankle-high laced boots, with square toes and wide heels, were worn until they were replaced by high-heeled button boots with pointy toes, introduced in the late 1870s.