Costume Moment: Black Silk Bonnet at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Bonnet, 99.664.10. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Visit here to see the object record at the mfa.org site to see alternate photography.

When I was a Collection Care Specialist at the MFA boston, I was beginning the study of late eighteenth century dress. I knew that this black silk bonnet was later than that period, but integrated aspects of  bonnets of the period I study (1750-1790). The bonnet was given to the museum with a large lot of clothing from the Robbins family of Lexington, Massachusetts in 1899. Within that gift are incredible pieces, both plain and fancy, that help illustrate dress history in early 18th century America.

When I see this hat, the squared crown indicates a later period, 1790-1810, that I generally work with. However, many of the components of the hat indicate its earlier ancestors: the swoop of the brim, the high crown, the looped ribbon at the back, the draped ribbon over the join between the crown and the brim, and even its black color. In my study of newspaper runaway advertisements 1750-1790, 147 out of 237 bonnets, or sixty-two percent, were black. The inner construction out of lightweight paperboard (“bonnet paper” is the period term) is rough, and enough.

This hat speaks of transitions in fashion. My hypothesis is that higher hat shape of the 1790s -1810s was worked together with more familiar details of earlier black bonnets.  The next step would be to identify paintings, prints, and fashion plates to support this idea. I’d read area newspapers to see if there were ready-made bonnets for sale in which this shape is described.

A predecessor. Bonnet, 1770-85. Colonial Williamsburg Foundation. 1993-335.

About Becky Fifield

Becky Fifield is a cultural heritage professional with 25 years experience in institutions large and small. She is currently Head of Collection Management for the Special Collections of the New York Public Library. An advocate for preventive conservation, Ms. Fifield is a Professional Associate of the American Institute for Conservation, Chair of the AIC Collection Care Network, and former Chair of Alliance for Response NYC. She is also a scholar of 18th century female unfree labor and dress. There's a bit of pun in the title The Still Room, delineating a quiet space brimming with the ingredients of memory, where consideration, analysis, and wordcraft can take place. Ms. Fifield’s interests include museum practice, dress history, historic preservation, transit, social and women’s history, food, current events, geneaology, roadtrips, and considerations on general sense of place. Becky and her husband, Dr. V, live in the Hudson Valley.