Photos Of What Victorian Women Really Kept Under Their Bonnets

Smack in between the Georgian and Edwardian periods was the fashion-forward and ideological Victorian era. Not only were there advances in science and technology during this time, but there were also small moments of rebellion. Many old photographs show women wearing bonnets, but there’s more to the story. Keep reading to see what was really under Victorian women’s bonnets.

Victorian Era Fashion For Women

painting of a girl in a bonnet from 1842
Heritage Art/Heritage Images via Getty Images
Heritage Art/Heritage Images via Getty Images

The fashion during the Victorian era was quite unique and reflected how women were treated during that time. Although the women usually stayed at home, their clothing was more constricted.

Women typically wore corsets, tight sleeves, dresses with exposed shoulders, and wide skirts. Bonnets weren’t considered a staple in their wardrobe, but some Victorian women would wear them.

The Bonnet Trend

A Victorian couple with a sewing machine, circa 1855
London Stereoscopic Company/Hulton Archive/Getty Images
London Stereoscopic Company/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Fashion trends have been occurring for centuries and there were certainly a few iconic looks that women were drawn to during the Victorian era. Their fashion choices began to reflect the new era of independence for the fairer gender.

This was a time when women were starting to explore outside societal boundaries. Both in Europe and the United States, women wanted to push the envelope with styles that were considered a bit taboo.

Hiding Behind Modesty

A bored teenage girl at a Victorian tea party
Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

During the 1800s, women were still expected to remain modest and dignified when it came to their physical appearance. While hats and bonnets may have seemed to help this, there may have been other purposes for them.

On their own, these now vintage head coverings seem a little impractical for the time period. This means women most likely didn’t wear them for how they looked.

Breaking Down The Bonnet

A group of women dressed in Victorian style clothing
Fox Photos/Getty Images
Fox Photos/Getty Images

The most common bonnets were made from either straw or fabric, but poke bonnets were the more luxurious choice. These only showed the face of a woman and the shape was based on a bell-shaped hoop skirt.

Bonnets weren’t too large, but Victorian women were still managing to fit a lot under them.

Women Had To Act Sly

woman pictured wearing a bonnet in 1849
Heritage Art/Heritage Images via Getty Images
Heritage Art/Heritage Images via Getty Images

Since women were restricted with almost all of their personal choices, they had to create new ways to show their true selves.

Even though society pressured them to look and act a certain way, they still had some autonomy over their physical appearance. However, they used the bonnets as a form of protection.

What Women Were Hiding Under Their Bonnets

a figure with a head covering in victorian clothes
Kait Husmann/Pinterest
Kait Husmann/Pinterest

Bonnets weren’t simply modest fashion trends for Victorian women, but they were used to hide long hair. During this time, it was almost unspeakable for women to wear their hair long, especially without some kind of covering.

Their hair wasn’t simply past their shoulders, but many of the women who hid their hair had grown it down to the floor.

The Long Hair Trend

Photograph of an American woman wearing a corset
GraphicaArtis/Getty Images
GraphicaArtis/Getty Images

Something as simplistic as long hair may seem a bit trivial for women to be concealing under their bonnets, but it was necessary for the era.

Long hair started to become popular amongst women in the Victorian age and even some men, too. Maintaining long hair was a whole other challenge.

Vintage Hair Care Was No Joke

victorian painting of woman with long hair
Print Collector/Getty Images
Print Collector/Getty Images

Having long hair during any time period requires a lot of maintenance, but there wasn’t too much information about hair care during the Victorian era.

Women wanted to make sure their long locks looked healthy and shiny, even though they couldn’t show them off in public. Some found new hair-lengthening shampoos and elixirs that were created to make their hair grow down to the ground.

Not Everyone Could Afford To Have Long Hair

woman with short hair during the victorian period
The Royal Photographic Society Collection/Victoria and Albert Museum, London/Getty Images
The Royal Photographic Society Collection/Victoria and Albert Museum, London/Getty Images

Long hair was a symbol of both beauty and rebellion during the Victorian age, but not everyone could afford to take care of their luscious locks.

Women who came from a lower class were often forced to cut off their hair for money, which would be made into wigs or extensions for the upper class.

What Was Found Inside Hair Products

woman with long hair during the victorian age
adoc-photos/Corbis via Getty Images
adoc-photos/Corbis via Getty Images

Keeping up with long hair is no easy task, so Victorian women needed to make sure their hair wasn’t getting tangled or knotted.

They turned to various elixirs, tonics, and shampoos that would contain ingredients such as egg yolks, soap, vinegar, rosemary, black tea, and even rum. These ingredients may seem over-the-top and it wasn’t proven if they actually worked.

Would Just Soap And Water Work?

painting of a woman sleeping with long hair
Thomas Ralph Spence/Fine Art Photographic/Getty Images
Thomas Ralph Spence/Fine Art Photographic/Getty Images

All of the ingredients found in Victorian era tonics may seem a little strange today and some beauty experts of the time agreed.

According to an 1879 dress and etiquette guide, “Many heads of hair require nothing more in the way of wash than soap and water.” The guide believed hair could grow to the ground with nothing more than the essentials.

There Were Many Differing Hair Care Opinions

victorian woman wearing a hat
Science Source/Pixels
Science Source/Pixels

While the 1879 dress and etiquette guide thought women only needed soap and water, other publications disagreed.

Godey’s Lady Book wrote, “To cleanse long hair – beat up the [yolk] of an egg with a pint of soft water. Apply it warm, and afterwards wash it out with warm water.”

Meet The Sutherland Sisters

the seven sutherland sisters with long hair
H. Armstrong Roberts/ClassicStock/Getty Images
H. Armstrong Roberts/ClassicStock/Getty Images

Since long hair became one of the top trends of the Victorian age, anyone who showed it off gained attention. In 1851, the world was introduced to seven sisters who came from a rural community in New York.

They lived with their father and grew up in poverty. He encouraged his daughters to get into showbusiness to make some money.

They Joined The Circus

sutherland sisters with their long hair in the circus
Michelle Nyree/Pinterest
Michelle Nyree/Pinterest

While they initially wanted to be a singing group, that all changed after the Southerland sisters joined the Barnum & Bailey circus company.

Crowds gathered to catch a glance at their long hair. Each of the young women had hair that went down to the ground and in total measured nearly 40-feet long.

The Sisters Became Household Names

sutherland sisters with their father in black and white photo
Atlas Obscura/Pinterest
Atlas Obscura/Pinterest

Seven sisters with some of the most outrageous hairstyles of the 1800s were sure to take the world by storm.

Their biographer, Brandon Stickney, wrote, “Though their shows – consisting of church music, parlor songs, and drawing-room ballads – received rave reviews, it was ultimately the girls’ hair that seemed the biggest draw.”

Move Over Kardashian Sisters

sutherland sisters posing for a photo with their father
Wikimedia Commons
Wikimedia Commons

Almost two centuries before the Kardashian/Jenner sisters became global phenomenons, the Sutherland sisters were the “first celebrity models.”

They had a huge influence over Victorian women and many were growing out their hair to be just like them. Then, their father figured out a way to monetize his daughters’ fame.

The Seven Sutherland Sisters Hair Grower

newspaper ad for seven sutherland sisters hair grower
Wikimedia Commons
Wikimedia Commons

It was only a matter of time before the Sutherland sisters started becoming a powerful marketing tool. Their dad came up with the idea to sell the Seven Sutherland Sisters Hair Grower.

The product was advertised to be able to help both women and men grow their hair as long as the Sutherland sisters.

What Was In The Sutherland Sisters Hair Grower

sutherland sisters posing for a photo with their father
Trixie-Elaine Heinz/Pinterest
Trixie-Elaine Heinz/Pinterest

Some beauty experts started to question what was really inside the Sutherland Sisters Hair Grower, so an investigation was launched.

They found mostly witch hazel and rum with some magnesia, hydrochloric acid, and salt. It was never reported if this concoction actually worked, but the sisters sold about 2.5 million bottles.

At The Top Of Their Game

grace sutherland posing for a photo with long hair
Wikimedia Commons
Wikimedia Commons

The Sutherland sisters had built a hair empire and were finally able to live the life of luxury. All the sisters made the covers of top magazines such as Cosmopolitan and The New Yorker.

They even settled back into their hometown and built a mansion with servants on every corner.

Auditions For A New Sutherland Sister

one of the sutherland sisters
Retronaut/Pinterest
Retronaut/Pinterest

The Sutherland sisters wanted to ride their success as far as it would take them. The number seven carried importance for them, as that’s how they were known.

But that all changed in 1893 when the third sister passed. They tried to hold auditions to find a new Sutherland sister, but it wouldn’t be the same.

A New Hairstyle Changed Everything

a flapper girl in beach clothes
Bettmann/Getty Images
Bettmann/Getty Images

While long hair was a way for women to feel liberated during the Victorian period, things started to change as the world headed into the 20th century.

The 1920s brought the flapper trend, which included the bold and dramatic bob haircut for women. It was a symbol of gender equality and women finally getting the rights they deserved.

Sutherland Sisters Lose Their Empire

mansion built for the sutherland sisters
The History Center of Niagara/Facebook
The History Center of Niagara/Facebook

The Sutherland sisters were able to have their 15 minutes of fame, but it came at a price. They ended up losing their fortune and went back to a life of poverty.

However, their daring long hair was one of the most important examples of women’s liberation during the Victorian era.

Breaking Barriers Before The Victorian Era

illustration of people dressed in clothes from the georgian era
The Print Collector via Getty Images
The Print Collector via Getty Images

The Sutherland sisters certainly weren’t the first example of females breaking fashion and style barriers. Women were showing signs of wanting long hair during the Georgian period.

This age was even more repressed than the Victorian time. Restricted topics such as religion, social values, and the arts weren’t giving people the freedom they felt they needed.

Why Rapunzel Makes Sense

illustration from rapunzel with prince climbing her hair
Historica Graphica Collection/Heritage Images/Getty Images
Historica Graphica Collection/Heritage Images/Getty Images

Women’s hair during the Georgian period was meant to look practically perfect. It was heavily styled with ringlets and curls.

One of the reasons why the Brothers Grimm’s story of Rapunzel was so popular was because she wore her hair in an outlandish way. It was so long that her prince could use it to climb all the way up her tower.

The Harshness Of The Victorian Period

queen victoria portrait from 1842
Imagno/Getty Images
Imagno/Getty Images

Even though the United Kingdom was ruled by Queen Victoria during the Victorian period, society did not reflect this. While a woman was given all this power, women still didn’t have basic rights.

They were seen as only being good for marriage and were prevented from owning property and voting.

Seeking A Way To Escape

illustration of rapunzel letting down her hair for the witch
Buyenlarge/Getty Images
Buyenlarge/Getty Images

Victorian women were held down by all kinds of societal rules and laws that made it very difficult for them to live life.

They saw symbols such as Rapunzel or the Sutherland sisters as heroines who were searching for ways to escape from oppression. Long hair was much more than a style choice.

Keeping The Long Locks Away From The Public

Two young women in Victorian dress talking privately with their backs to the camera
Underwood Archives/Getty Images
Underwood Archives/Getty Images

Not everyone had the guts to grow their hair long during the Victorian period. Even those who did were almost always covering them with a hat or bonnet.

Privileged, upper-class women were some of the most common examples of those who were wealthy enough to keep up with their long hair.

Hair Was An Asset

Victorian stage actress looking into a mirror
FPG/Getty Images
FPG/Getty Images

Most photos from the Victorian era rarely show women with long hair. During this time, women were seen as assets. This even came down to their hairstyles.

Although long hair was sometimes frowned upon, it was actually quite common to see performers, models, and actresses wearing their hair down in public.

Social Class Determined A Lot

servants with their hair pushed back during the victorian era
English Heritage/Heritage Images/Getty Images
English Heritage/Heritage Images/Getty Images

While it was certainly not proper for women in a higher social class to have longer hair, it wasn’t really appropriate for the lower class as well.

There just wouldn’t have been much outrage if someone from a lower class was seen doing so. This was also a time when the middle class began to grow.

The Photo Evidence

victorian woman with long hair facing away from the camera
Heritage Art/Heritage Images via Getty Images
Heritage Art/Heritage Images via Getty Images

It would most likely be lost on those today that women grew their hair long during the Victorian age. The best evidence for this is through personal photographs.

Women would sometimes style their long hair with ribbons, flowers, or bows and made a lot of effort to make sure their hair was maintained.