Calash (if you're English; in French it's called caleche) bonnets were a popular ladies' fashion from the mid-18th c. well into the 19th c. They were one of the rare 18th c. fashions born of necessity, rather than pure fancy: when hairstyles grew to such towering heights that the hoods on cloaks could no longer accommodate them, calash bonnets were created.
Engineered to rise high and collapse flat much like the top of a covered carriage, the calash was customarily made of black or other dark-colored silk taffeta, whose glossy sheen highlighted all the ruffles and gathers. Narrow strips of flexible cane or whalebone were inserted into stitched channels, and bent to produce the arches that would sit over, rather than on top of, elaborately arranged hair. The calash tied under the chin, making it a kind of hybrid of a bonnet and a hood. While 18th c. models are tall and almost oval in shape, later versions are more round, reflecting the more modest hairstyles of the 19th c. Here's an example from 1820, and another from 1840. In an earlier post, Loretta wrote of one more, made from cotton, on display at Sturbridge Village.
Some fashion legends claim the calash was first worn by the trend-setting Georgianna, Duchess of Devonshire in 1765, while others say the Duchess of Bedford deserves the honor. Either way, the bonnets were swiftly embraced by fashionable ladies, and just as swiftly skewered by caricaturists – which brings us back to our Spruce Sportsman ladies from Colonial Williamsburg. The photo from the video shoot, above left, shows an elegant black calash (worn by Emma, a mantua-maker's assistant from the Margaret Hunter Shop), topping the requisite tall hair of the period, plus a cap and bow as in the original drawing. And yes, that really is Emma's own very long hair, powdered and dressed (right) and not a wig!
Back in the milliner's shop, Sarah offered to give us a closer look at the calash, below left and right. While she doesn't have the extravagant hair to fill the calash the way Emma did, the photo, left, does show the ribs and gathers, and the flirtatious bow centering the back, and guaranteeing a memorable exit. The calash's ruffled collar sat over the cloak, almost like a little capelet. Given all that volume, the calash is surprisingly lightweight, and again I wondered what sort of mishaps might occur if an untoward gust of wind crept up inside it.
In the picture, right, Sarah is demonstrating the long loop of ribbon that was used to pull the calash forward over the face. Fiddling with this ribbon was also apparently a popular affectation of young ladies of the day; contemporary sources refer to them snapping these ribbons to artful (and likely quite annoying) affect. Must have been the 18th c. version of twirling one's hair and cracking one's chewing gum....
There’s a big difference in how we use history. But we’re equally nuts about it. To us, the everyday details of life in the past are things to talk about, ponder, make fun of -- much in the way normal people talk about their favorite reality show.
We talk about who’s wearing what and who’s sleeping with whom. We try to sort out rumor or myth from fact. We thought there must be at least three other people out there who think history’s fascinating and fun, too. This blog is for them.