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 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.
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.
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.