We often talk about the fashionable side of millinery, where straw plait is finely braided and at times quite fancy. There is a whole other side to straw millinery though, that of coarse straw.
What is coarse straw?
Coarse straw can be poorer quality straw braided into plait. This can be short shafts of straw as well as straw shafts that are uneven or discolored. Coarse straw can be poorly plaited straw, either loosely or thickly plaited. In English plait markets, this plait would be purchased for a lesser price. In the United States, such plait would earn a lesser pay.
Who Wore Coarse Straw Bonnets?
There seem to be two sets of answers, one based on time – That prior to approx 1850 coarse straw bonnets appear in mentions of fashion with the height in the 1830s (roughly). These mentions reference coarse straw for morning wear with simple adornment of only ribbons. As we reach further into the 1840s the mentions switch to saying this practice is falling out of fashion. By the 50s, 1851 actually, these mentions seem to disappear.
Chapeaux of very coarse straw are now also in favour for morning desbabille; their trimming is ribbon only, but of the most rich and expensive kind. (New Monthly Belle Assemblée, 1841)
Once we turn the mid-point of the century fashion descriptions fall away.
Spanning the 1830s through the 1860s, coarse straw bonnets and hats appear in textual references for the poor, institutionalized and somewhat for school girls.
Asylum records in England list plaiting and bonnet making as one of the activities inmates undertook. It is possible these bonnets were worn in house or made for profit. There are descriptions of inmates wearing bonnets. In a short story in The Mirror, 1842, page 75, the author attends a New Year’s Eve event at a Pauper Lunatic Asylum that seems to have been a fundraiser or benevolence gathering. She observes the inmates wearing white caps in some cases and straw bonnets in others, including: “She stalked about in her poor straw bonnet and short sorry gown, with a lofty stage stride, as if she had been the original goddess of plenty.” Admittedly, this is a special event. So, which they wore when is up in the air. I did see an illustration of a store room filled with box style shelves stacked with bonnets. Each box and bonnet was numbered. Many of the bonnets appeared to be straw. I will share this once I find it again. FOUND IT!!
This excerpt recommends supplying poor families with straw so the mothers may make bonnets for the school children:
I have one outlying reference from 1859 that suggests coarse straw may also have been worn for times of extreme heat. I will keep my eyes open for additional mentions or clarification.
Additional Fictional Mentions:
Jane Eyre – Wearing coarse bonnets in the garden
Bleak House – Mrs. Baguet returning from market red-faced in a rough straw bonnet.