A Bee in My Bonnet, by Diana Oaks

A Bee in My Bonnet, by Diana Oaks

If an earworm is a musical tune that you hear playing over and over in your mind, a bee in a bonnet is a parallel idiom, expanding to a thought or topic that one can’t quite set free, like a bee buzzing around in the brain, trapped. The host subject proceeds to bring the topic up to anyone who will listen and even those who will not. We all know someone with the occasional bee in their bonnet, and this year, Easter triggered this phenomenon with me when I saw an article in the New York Post about the annual Easter Parade and Bonnet Festival. I started wondering just exactly how the transition was made from the Georgian pre-Regency big hair and big, fancy hats to the simple poke bonnets of the Regency, and a bee was born.

The Duchess of Devonshire (Thomas Gainsborough – Public Domain)
Bonnet Styles from 1820.

The transition was actually fairly organic, following the fashion trend that raised the waistline and simplified the shape of clothing to reflect the clothing and hairstyles observed in classic Grecian art. The flat hat brims of the previous century were pulled down around the face to provide protection from the weather, with the back of the round brim becoming an extraneous bit that was soon done away with.

In spite of the bonnets of the early 19th century being smaller in size and less ornate than the millinery that preceded them, they remained a high-cost investment in a wardrobe. Account books from this era place the price of a whole, complete bonnet at around a pound or a guinea. The same records indicate that one could acquire a new gown for the same price.

The cost comparison casts light on a passage in Chapter 39 of Pride and Prejudice, which occurs when Elizabeth, Jane, and Maria Lucas are returning to Meryton from Gardiner’s home. Mr. Bennet has sent a carriage to meet them but allowed Kitty and Lydia to do so as well. Lydia, upon arriving in town an hour ahead of the rendevous time goes across the street to the milliners and spends all the money they had.

 “And we mean to treat you all,” added Lydia; “but you must lend us the money, for we have just spent ours at the shop out there.” Then, shewing her purchases — “Look here, I have bought this bonnet. I do not think it is very pretty; but I thought I might as well buy it as not. I shall pull it to pieces as soon as I get home, and see if I can make it up any better.”

And when her sisters abused it as ugly, she added, with perfect unconcern, “Oh! but there were two or three much uglier in the shop; and when I have bought some prettier-coloured satin to trim it with fresh, I think it will be very tolerable. Besides, it will not much signify what one wears this summer, after the — — shire have left Meryton, and they are going in a fortnight.”

As reflected in these paragraphs, bonnets were routinely made over and re-trimmed, so often in fact, that trimmings were generally pinned in place, not sewn. Bonnets were often made over to match a dress or update the style, so a well-designed base could serve to enhance a wardrobe for several years. We learn from this passage that Lydia’s sense of fashion and economy are both poor, her unwise judgment in this arena are sure to spell marital financial woes for her future husband.

Austen used bonnets to reveal characteristics on several occasions in her novels. Another of my favorite bonnet passages is in Chapter 42 of Emma, where Mrs. Elton describes her wardrobe for the picnic at Donwell Abbey.”

  “… It is to be a morning scheme, you know, Knightley; quite a simple thing. I shall wear a large bonnet, and bring one of my little baskets hanging on my arm. Here, — probably this basket with pink ribbon. Nothing can be more simple, you see. And Jane will have such another. There is to be no form or parade — a sort of gipsy party. We are to walk about your gardens, and gather the strawberries ourselves, and sit under trees; and whatever else you may like to provide, it is to be all out of doors; a table spread in the shade, you know. Every thing as natural and simple as possible. Is not that your idea?”

(And of course, it was not.)

The variations of bonnet styles in this era can’t be numbered, there were so many. We know though, that the poke bonnet, with a brim that covered the sides of a lady’s face, was lampooned by caricature artists who, no doubt, found kissing a lady in a poke bonnet nigh unto impossible.

Poking fun

Bonnets like these have long since passed out of style, yet I find the appearance of a face framed by the brim of a bonnet curiously appealing.

Emma in a charming bonnet

Hopefully, I have set my bee free now, and if we all learned something in staging this release into the wild, I for one will be delighted. I would love to hear your thoughts and experiences with bonnets.

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May 8, 2022 1:21 PM

Typical Lydia, offering to treat them but having already spent all the money! Now Mrs Elton? What an absolute horror she is! I wish Knightly had told her it would be nothing like that so perhaps she shouldn’t come!
I’m so glad we don’t have to wear bonnets nowadays, maybe we could do with Lydia to trim our masks?

Shana Jefferis
Shana Jefferis
May 7, 2022 11:54 AM

I loved the article and saved the image of the bonnets in my research file. I admire how Jane Austen used what was available, such as a lady’s clothes, not to give a long winded description of the finery, but to tell us about her character. Lydia buying an ugly bonnet because she has money in her pocket is a great example. Especially when you add to it the fact she has promised to buy lunch for her sisters, but reneges because she has no money after buying the bonnet! Is she bad with money? Yes? Does she have moral failings? Double yes! Its also interesting that in the most important letter of her life, written to Mrs. Forster, Lydia is more worried about having her worked muslin dress repaired than leaving word for her family as to where she plans to go with Wickham. Its an effective literary device. If you want to read Jane Austen’s descriptions of the clothing of the time, you have to go to any book of her letters. There, she does give minute detail!

Caryl Kane
Caryl Kane
May 4, 2022 9:09 AM

Diana, Thank you for this wonderful post!

cindie snyder
cindie snyder
May 2, 2022 8:03 PM

Such lovely bonnets! What an awesome post!

May 2, 2022 7:01 PM

I love looking at bonnets and seeing how styles changed.

J. W. Garrett.
J. W. Garrett.
May 2, 2022 2:28 PM

The 1940 movie of Pride and Prejudice was wrong on so many levels. However, I did enjoy seeing how many variations of the same bonnet style they created by using various materials, ribbons, and such. I always think of Lydia and her machinations with bonnets when I watch that movie. You could see the same with the dresses. Someone was very creative using the same style of dress but with different ornaments [lace and flounces a.k.a. Mrs. Bennet]. I would have to look at the movie again but I think there were only about 4 to 5 variations on the bonnets. I bet they even handmade the gloves. That movie is a smorgasbord of fashion delights.

I love hats and used to wear them. Sadly, they went out of style and I was the only one wearing them. I still have them in the back of my closet. This was an amazing post. I really enjoyed it. I know that Sharon Lathan made hats/bonnets. I don’t know if she still does or not but I loved seeing how creative she was.

Jean Stillman
Jean Stillman
May 2, 2022 12:00 PM

Great article. I am so fascinated with bonnets!

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