Bonnets that Deserve Better: A Dozen Ugly Ducklings in the Met’s Headwear Collection

I love a good bonnet, even if badly photographed. <3

Museum photography has come a long way in the past decade. I remember when the only way to explore a museum’s collection was to physically travel to view an exhibit in person, be buddies with a curator, or read about them in textbooks, sometimes with a blessed-but-grainy black and white picture the size of a domino. Now museums around the world have their collections photographed and available for free online!

We have gone from this:

To this:

Bonnet, circa 1870

Huzzah! Hooray! Oh, happy day!

And believe me, I am infinitely grateful. But, I am also infinitely concerned with systematic forward progression and implementing improved standards of quality (i.e. I am demanding and persnickety). Today, I am picking on the Met because the Met is one of my favorite museums. They seem open and honest about their collections– even candidly blogging about some drawings in their collection were massively mis-attributed! You can even give them feedback about their website, rating it and saying what you liked and what you didn’t. I appreciate their openness and make full use of it. MMoA, you asked for it!

In my many invested hours of research (i.e. PINTEREST), I have discovered many beautiful Met Museum objects with hideous photos, in particular, 19th century bonnets and hats. Granted, there are plenty of hideous objects with lovely pictures as well. There is clearly a miracle-working photographer in the costume department because they made this clunky sunbonnet look so lovely I kind of want it…which is saying something because I LOATHE 19th-century sunbonnets!

Cotton Sunbonnet, circa 1860
This photo makes it look good enough to actually wear!

Now, compare that picture with this one:

Sunbonnet, circa 1838
Ah, there’s the warm, familiar hatred again. If Jedi had to wear sunbonnets, I would instantly become a Sith. No questions! Sunbonnet Crusher duty? SIGN ME UP!

Okay, so maybe I am exaggerating a little. You see, that second bonnet isn’t terrible at all! In fact, it’s actually way more adorable than the photo lets on. It’s made of a spotted calico that’s kind of polka-dotty from a distance, it’s got pinked trim, a nifty straw brim, and a sweet bow perched on top. But that photo just does not do it justice when you compare it to other bonnet photographs in the collection:

Snedden Designer Bonnet with Pearls, circa 1883
(another bonnet that has benefited from the leap in photography technology)

Velvet Evening Bonnet, 1802

Bonnet, circa 1887

“But, Liz! Those are all fashionable, fancy-lady bonnets! You can’t compare a daytime 1850s sunbonnet to a 1880s millioneress’s bonnet!”

True: there are many bonnets of vastly different styles, decades, price-points and occasions, but being fancier doesn’t make them any less likely to be photographed poorly. The Met does not discriminate based on social class! Case in point:

Which of these two photos looks like a million bucks to you?

I started making note of all the bonnets I found that were begging for a better photo. The list was quite long! However, I narrowed it down to just a few.

MOST of the bonnets are this list were not picked just because I thought they needed a prettier photo–though, confession: some are on the list because they are OMGorgeous! There are so many pretty-but-not-artistically-photographed bonnets in the Met’s collection, like this early 19th century bonnet. However, many of them, despite their flash-blasted, yellow-tinged photographs, still shine through with clear detail. Instead, I chose bonnets that I thought were actively hampered by their photo– those with great texture that was lost, fit that was hard to judge, or colors that weren’t properly portrayed, all details that are actively explored and sought after by costume and textile researchers.


#10: “Ye Old Bonnet?!” circa 1799-1810

Originally #10 was this straw bonnet that I loved the shape of, but there is no view of the front. However, I stumbled upon this bonnet/headdress just before publishing my list. I was so intrigued, I knew it had to be on the list! There is no other “bonnet” like it in the Met’s collection and if that date is correct (question: has anyone seen something like this from the era?), it would make it one of the earliest pieces in the bonnet sub-category. I want to know more!

#9: “Happy Spring Day in a Dust Storm” Bonnet, circa 1860

This is one of those “It’s just so pretty it needs to be shown off!” bonnets. The layers of trimmings are so lovely, but the dingy, grainy photo does its richness a great disservice.

#8: “Black Velvet Mystery” Bonnet, circa 1850

This bonnet already has a beautifully lit, crisp new photo, yet, it’s impossible to tell how it fits! It’s listed as a bonnet, but the shape and fit isn’t obvious. Does it perch on the back of the head? Is it a child-sized cap? Or is it bigger than it looks? This is a piece that would really benefit from a display head.

#7: “Snow Princess” Lace Bonnet, circa 1885-90

Another stunner suffering from bad lighting and graininess! This bonnet is mummified in lovely lace, has a velvet edge, and a feather on top! The interplay of textures and true color are lost, though, and the angle of the two photos almost look like two different hats! Click here to see the second photo of the back. You’ll see what I mean. Also, this hat has a photo of the designer’s label, but it’s not listed in the description (J. Pendlebury / Wigan). This was a very expensive hat during its day! It would be so lovely for a bride.

#6: “Scarlet’s Envy” Promenade Bonnet, circa 1851-1862

The vast majority of the Met’s mid-19th century bonnet collection suffers from small, badly-lit photos. I imagine they must have been doing them all in a  swift batch in order to give us, the demanding costuming community, visual references. The Met has worked hard to get photos for every object’s online catalogue page! They are getting closer to achieving that goal. I am so thankful for their hard work. However, this gal is beautiful, but the silk gathers and layers upon layers of delicate trimming aren’t very well portrayed. I also think it’s later in date than listed. Any bonnet experts have a firmer date for it?

#5: “Autumnal Delight” Bonnet, circa 1864-1867

This bonnet is just fabulous! At first I thought that it was a lovely example of straw work, but then I read the description…can you believe this bonnet is made of horsehair?! I would have never guessed!  Once again, the small, grainy photos erase this bonnet’s main draw: the unique materials and lush interplay of textures. Just look at those woven plumes and tiny tassels! This is probably my personal favorite bonnet on the list. I would wear it in a heartbeat.

#4: “The WAT?!” Bonnet, circa 1800-1925

I’m calling this one that “WAT?!” bonnet not because I find it poorly designed (though the display certainly makes it look odd), but because it is in desperate need of a cleaning, some context, and a more accurate date. 125 YEARS, MET?! REALLY?! This bonnet/hat is from around 1900 and would have been paired with a Gibson Girl hairstyle, hence the shallow back (to fit around a chignon) and large forward swoop (to go over the puffy pompadour front). It even has a designer label inside that they photographed, but the cataloger failed to note in the description. It’s not a show-stopping hat by any means, but it certainly deserves better basic cataloguing in addition to a fresh photo!

#3: “Cinderella” Bonnet/Cap, circa 1845-50

Just look at that lace and ribbon! Wow! Even in that terrible lighting, it looks amazing. However, the image is small and grainy, so you can’t see all the wonderful details. This one is just too pretty not to have a better photo!

#2: “Faceplant” Poke Bonnet, circa 1840-69

This bonnet is so sad! It looks like a jellyfish washed up on the shore or a snail trying to crawl away. I suppose if you were a nice “Sunday’s best” bonnet that got labelled as a poke bonnet, you’d be sad, too. This bonnet would be so much happier if its beautiful silk satin shirring and lace were properly photographed on a stand or mannequin!

#1: “Moping Mop” Ribbon Bonnet, circa 1841

The last bonnet  looked sad, but this poor bonnet is actively trying to hide. Perhaps it’s in such poor shape that this is the only way to display it (like this crumbling 1830s straw bonnet), but it’s completely impossible to tell that it’s even a cap/bonnet. What’s even odder is that unlike many of the bonnets in the collection which suffer from dating swathes that range from a generalized 20 year period to the egregious 125 YEAR RANGE OMG MET WTF, this bonnet has been dated precisely to 1841. In addition, it was purchased with donation money in 1982, apparently by choice. Either it was part of a lot that had other pieces in it the Met wanted and the cap just came with, or they purposefully bought it, possibly with provenance granting it such a firm date, like a letter or label. And yet, here it is, just flopped on a table like a mound of seaweed.

The more I looked at these bonnets with less-than-ideal photos, the more I realized how shallow and callous it was to judge a bonnet by its photo. In our massively visual online culture, objects with the prettiest images often get sharing priority, meaning that many perfectly fabulous fashions get ignored! This affects not only personal research, but can affect the quality of conservation, too. Many objects that receive well-made professional photographs often receive special cleaning and repairs in order for them to display and photograph to the object’s best advantage. In a collection like the Met’s–with over 300+ bonnets alone– such a large undertaking would involve not only lots of time, equipment, and effort from the photographer(s), but a large investment from the conservation department– and let’s face it: we may love bonnets, but there are probably more pressing conservation projects than cleaning a common straw sunbonnet, no matter how cute it is.

Interested in seeing more awesome bonnets with horrific pictures?
Click here to view the Met’s bonnet collection online

Let me know which one is your favorite! Is it a delicate straw bonnet from the 1840s? A sky-high feathered stunner from the 1880s? A tubular Regency poke bonnet? Post a link below so I can see it!

Trash, Transform, or Treasure: What Should I Do with My Thrifted Finds?

Taming the Habit


Every object has “potential,” just make sure that the potential isn’t in the form of vase at the edge of a table!
(Oooo…science jokessssss…)

I binge on eBay, indulge in second-hand shops, and glut myself with rescued vintage from all sorts of places. I am addicted to thrifting! Many of my purchases go directly to my costumes, others to my collections, and some I take apart to make into other things. But how do you know what to keep and what to pass over? Or what to preserve and what can be recycled into something new?


…or you could just lay it all out on the bed and let me wallow all over it. That works, too…



The first question– what to keep and what to pass over– is the easier of the two questions to answer. Clearly useful things like nice clothing that fits you, chairs or bookshelves, or craft supplies with a project immediately in mind, etc. are all practical buys if there is a need for them. However, for the longest time, I fell into the trap of buying things either because they were really nice (and I would be a fool for passing up such a good bargain), or I needed to “rescue” a sad item from being unappreciated. I ended up with a lot of really good quality items that usually didn’t fit my needs and lots of really shabby items that just weren’t usable. I could sell or gift the nice items I couldn’t use, which was fine, but many of the items beyond my help just sat around, withering away, just as sad as ever. Eventually I came to an agonizing realization: If you can’t use/repair something, don’t buy it.


I have learned that things I plan to transform are better searched for and bought as I need them. I have a serious case of the possibility bug, so I often buy things I plan to transform long before I need them, if ever. For TLC items already in my closet, I decided that if I don’t use them within a year, they need to go. Now, many items I could repair or re-purpose, like if a brooch was missing a few rhinestones I could replace them or I could turn a worn out pillowcase into a stomacher.  When I find silk or linen shirts at the local Goodwill, I will often buy them regardless of whether they fit me or not. Why? Because I can recycle the fabric from the shirt more cheaply than I can buy the fabric new, especially if I only need a bit for a bag, trims, or in this case, a coif:

Embroidered Shirt107_4250

Learn how to transform a shirt into an Elizabethan coif here!

I have lots of these shirts stored away, as well as other notions like vintage ribbon trims and buttons. These kind of things fall more into my “fabric stash” category which is a whole other project (mess) in itself!


Other items might have some damage, but still be collectable, like this Edwardian dress with a shredded skirt and loose stitching:


Despite its condition issues, this dress is mostly sound and has great character! It wasn’t very expensive either, and it filled in a gap in  my collection. A few well-placed stitches and a repaired button later, it has been shored up and stowed away.



What is suitable to reuse and what should be kept as it is? This is the harder of the two questions to answer. There is a lot of argument about how much responsibility we have as crafters, collector, and costumers alike to preserve history, and an equal amount of hoopla about proper protocol when it comes to reusing, wearing, or collecting antiques. What’s museum-worthy in one person’s eyes may appear to be a useless piece of junk to another. Collectors and crafters have been fighting over this distinction for centuries. Our ancestors were infamously crafty when it came to reusing antique materials, even if they were already 100 years old at the time:

BEFORE: Polychrome Embroidered Jacket, circa 1616


AFTER: Shoes, circa 1685-1735
These were made from an embroidered jacket (circa 1600-20) during the early part of the 18th century. Similar incidents include many 18th century silks and even whole gowns being made into new dresses during the Victorian era.

I have to admit that I float between the “save it all for posterity” and the “make everything new again” camps– I want to save every single antique that falls into my hands, but I also see the possibilities it might hold for other uses.


Generally, completed items (i.e. things in their final form, not raw materials like fabric) with only minor condition issues or that have historical or personal significance are considered strictly collectables. If you are looking to collect antiques or vintage, condition is important, but often it is highly subjective. A “cutter” to one person is a perfectly good tie/dress/quilt to anther person.

I have bought so many items from online and in antique shops that have been sold “as-is” or “for parts” that turned out to be in excellent shape besides a few minor scruffs. Not that such labels usually matter to me anyway: I can’t bear taking these things apart! Imagine how terrible it would have been if this 1890s dress had been hacked up just because the front trim is loose and there are a few breaks in the lace:

Dress Size Comparison

Even major cosmetic imperfections like stains or structural condition issues like missing sleeves (or in the case of this poor sleeve, missing everything else) can be forgiven if an item is rare enough to be historically significant. Most of the things I find, though, aren’t Roadshow worthy. My favorite Victorian piece in my collection is my 1890s fire engine red bodice. Before I found it, the beautiful silk moire ribbon from its collar and bust-line had already been removed, but I still treasure it nonetheless:


To fill in for the missing ribbon, someone glued thin polyester ribbon onto the silk. Old clothing, especially Victorian and Edwardian gowns, often has later alterations–the biggest culprit being zippers added to turn great-grandma’s dress into a Halloween costume.

The items I choose to save, even if I can see a thousand uses for if I took them apart or altered them, are usually those that are (over 65%) structurally sound and older than 75 years. It’s not a hard-and-fast criteria by any means, but one that works well for my heart and my storage situation. I’m a sucker for old things and I am also keenly aware that once-common items slowly become harder to find as time goes by. As bizarre as it seems to me, even my childhood toys have become collectors items, as have all those “hideous” 1980s blouses with huge shoulder pads and beaded fringe. Sometimes I find vintage items that I think are worth collecting rather than wearing or altering just because they have significant history, value, or beauty that I don’t want to risk ruining. Other things I keep because they are sentimental or make me invariably happy to hold.

I love jewelry!

Rings! Rings! Rings!

Age, however, isn’t an automatic excuse to impulse buy something. Just because something is old doesn’t mean it’s worth saving. If you find a beautiful 1920s dress but it is shredded to pieces (as antique silk often does), unless you are willing to restore it, it is better to save the trim pieces or pass it up entirely. It’s heartbreaking. It’s hard. It will make you feel like a terrible person. It’s better for your sanity in the end, though. Otherwise you end up surrounded by piles and boxes full of silk dust, loose beads, and garments that you can’t even touch without destroying further. That’s not healthy for you or the garment. It is better to let go.


What you do with vintage clothing is a matter of taste. Much of the younger stuff (under 75 years old) is often still wearable and many people take advantage of that to expand their wardrobe. I have clothes from the 1940s to the 1980s that I still wear. Others like to tweak older clothes for fit, like shortening a hem to “update” a dress. Hats, gloves, and other accessories lend themselves well to alterations. For example, Lauren from American Duchess transformed a vintage hat into an 1870-1880 bonnet with great success! Items are ripe for transformation if they are in need of serious repair or if you have a specific project in mind.

Vintage and antique fabrics are also wonderful for transforming into something fresh (though some may prefer to preserve older or rarer fabrics rather than use them). While my area doesn’t have much in the way of sewing or craft notions available in thrift shops, other areas do, often at great discounts. Fabric is expensive to buy off the bolt, but second-hand sheets, curtains, and tablecloths are excellent sources. Just wash them well as soon as you get them home!

Loose antique notions–for example buttons, ribbons, and lace–are fair game for transforming into something new! Antique millinery feathers and plumes are often some of the best quality available and many pieces, like beaded trim bits or old buttons, are tailor made (literally) for making an outfit shine.

Costume jewelry is also fair game, based on what you deem is appropriate for use. Don’t like wearing brooches but fall in love with one? Transform it into a pendant! Replace rhinestones, remove rhinestones, add pearl drops, solder things into a sculpture, paint over clear stones to turn them green, etc. If I find a piece of designer jewelry, I’m much less less likely to turn it into something else, but there are plenty of other pieces that benefit from a facelift!


BEFORE: 1950s Goldtone Pin


AFTER: 1590s-style Enameled Pin


I have seen lots of people recycle items that I believe should have been saved, and I have worn/transformed things that some people would be horrified to hear I didn’t leave alone. For me, it’s a fine, often agonizing, line to walk since I’m unabashedly enamored with museum science, yet equally passionate about utility and recycling. Whatever you do with your own thrifted items, however, is entirely your business. You are not required to collect items; there are plenty of museums for that. You also don’t have to rely only on authentic, period materials to make your costume creations great. What you trash, transform, or treasure is entirely up to you!