Until the 20th century, people did not buy a lot new clothing from year to year, but instead updated what they owned with new trims, collars, buttons, etc. A new dress was a big purchase for most women and, therefore, rare. Perhaps a woman would only buy one, maybe two, new dresses per year.
But a new accessory, like a hat, cost much less than a new dress. Spring hats were a more common purchase for women transitioning from winter attire to summer clothes. But even old hats could be made like new with new ribbons and silk flowers. Remember, before the 20th century, it was rare for a woman to leave the house without some kind of head covering.
In the 1800s, much of life revolved around religion, so it might be no surprise that Easter was the date to unveil a new spring hat. By the late Victorian era, the term Easter bonnet had been coined.
Old European superstitions supported wearing new clothes and hats on the holiday. A column titled “Your Easter Clothes,” in the March 27, 1900, issue of the New York Times read, “At Easter let your clothes be new, or this be sure you it will rue. This is an old fifteenth century couplet proving that the Easter bonnet necessity was not invented by the rapacious milliner, but is simply a survival of an ancient superstition.”
A poem by Tom Hall published in Vogue‘s April 2, 1896, issue captures the author’s pleasure at seeing the woman he fancies in a new Easter bonnet:
To Her Easter Bonnet
Ah, me! It is a wondrous thing,
That little Easter bonnet.
Why, all the flowers of joyous spring
Are fastened there upon it.
Just what the name of each may be
I do not know at all.
But I would call the whole — let’s see —
Well — Horticultural Hall.
But let me stop. It pleases her,
And see this kiss she tossed me.
It’s worth ten thousand bonnets, sir,
No matter what they cost me.
Likewise, a short story from Vogue‘s April 5, 1900, issue told, “Only that morning Mrs. Hunter entered a millinery shop to order a bonnet for Easter, for not being a follower of the very latest fashions, Mrs. Hunter felt that every woman should have a new bonnet for that day. It encouraged the minister, and it showed a proper respect for the occasion.”
This passage shows us that people believed that fashion and religion could go together, and that wearing fashionable attire was actually a way of showing reverence at church. Since church life was so important to society at the turn of the century, perhaps this attitude makes sense.
Celebrations for Easter grew bigger than ever before during the Victorian era. By the 1880s, New York City was known for its Easter parade, and many other major U.S. cities followed suit with their own. Everyone would turn out to the parade in their newest and finest frippery. The Easter parade solidified the tradition of dressing up in one’s new spring attire.
Then Irving Berlin commemorated the Easter bonnet through his 1933 song “Easter Parade.” He sang:
In your Easter bonnet, with all the frills upon it,
You’ll be the grandest lady in the Easter parade.
I’ll be all in clover and when they look you over,
I’ll be the proudest fellow in the Easter parade.
On the avenue, Fifth Avenue, the photographers will snap us,
And you’ll find that you’re in the rotogravure.
Oh, I could write a sonnet about your Easter bonnet,
And of the girl I’m taking to the Easter parade.
And so, through both religious life and pop culture the Easter bonnet became the item every woman and young girl needed for Easter Sunday. While bonnets themselves fell out of fashion in the 20th century, we still call any spring hat worn that day an Easter bonnet.
I’m curious, did any of you wear an Easter bonnet when you were a kid? Or maybe you still do! Please tell!