From an emblem of social rank and tool of division into a beauty ritual of today, we’re exploring the dynamic history of bonnets.
You may have seen more bonnets that you used to as of late. Maybe it was while live with Cardi B or perhaps on your latest team Zoom call, or right here at Cee Cee, the headwear is having it’s day in the spotlight. While the debate over its propriety in day to day settings remains, the bonnet is as authentic as it gets when it comes to BTS with a black woman. But like most things, the bonnet too has a story.
Initially only worn by high society women at home through the 17th century, the head covering became a standard in women’s fashion by the 1800s. Influenced by religious ideals, the bonnet served as a simultaneous symbol of womanly subordination and grandeur. It represented both women’s lower status among the world but also the highest aspiration of feminine devotion as dictated by the Bible. As free society’s fashions evolved, the bonnet continued to be an honorable badge of tradition and modesty.
However, as hats increased in popularity, the bonnet became another mechanism to concentrate dominion over enslaved Africans and indigenous people as well as free mulattos. While the Negro act of 1735 not only made gathering and learning to read illegal but also instituted guidelines for what slaves could wear in South Carolina. Field workers were reserved to the cheapest of fabrics while house slaves were provided with slightly elevated attire to distinguish from their lower counterparts but not match the quality of their owners. The outdoor slave wore a simple bonnet of scrap fabric tied at the chin while indoor workers donned designs and fabric reflective of European styles. Nonetheless, this token of bondage provided a connection to and loose preservation of heritage, as head wraps served as symbols of regality in many parts of Subsaharan Africa. Thus, the bonnet became both a rite of passage and personal piece of identity for enslaved African Americans.
The sordid history of the bonnet continued as a specific tool of oppression through Louisiana's Forced “Edict of Good Government”, largely known as the Tignon Law. Through this regime, Governor Esteban Miro dictated black women’s hair was to be tied down in a “kerchief”, a move influenced by fear and a distorted sense of jealousy. As Creole women enjoyed civil liberties above their enslaved brethren, often interacting with white society shoulder to shoulder, Miro sought to disparage the intermingling of races and curb male lust. In an effort to discourage white men from colluding with mulatto women, the Tignon Law did not allow Creole women to style their hair in a preferred or attractive fashion. To make their social rank distinct, they were restricted to wear bonnets. However, this attempt of tyranny birthed a beautiful rebellion, with many women turning their headwraps into a powerful source of creative expression. Women used ornate fabrics and embellished their bonnets with feathers and jewels.
Following slavery’s end in America, public bonnets were no longer in fashion due to their connection to servitude, though maintained by necessity by sharecroppers and prairie dwellers. However the bonnet maintained prevalence in popular society as a reinforcement of rank. Cultural figures such as Mammy and later Aunt Jemima wore bonnets as a symbolic representation of Black women's place in America, one of grinning servitude to their white counterparts.
As the journey of freedom continued and with it so did the increasingly complex relationship between Black women and their hair. The innovation of hair treatments by beauty pioneers including Madame C. J. Walker in the early 1900s helped to make black women’s hair more manageable. The bonnet became a purposeful tool to sustain and protect texture. Though hats were preferable outdoors, the head piece was a source of magic. Head coverings continued to be for indoor purposes only until the Black power movement of the 60s and 70s. Spurred by reconnection to cultural roots and reclaiming of disempowering symbols, bonnets transmuted into headwraps. Civil rights icons including Nina Simone frequently performed for mixed audiences in ornate head covers as an act of rebellion against social injustices.
While the traditional prairie style associated is associated with the Amish in modern culture, the history of the bonnet remains prevalent. From a means of oppression to one of personal expression, not to mention function, it speaks as a powerful statement of strength and creativity in the lives and stories of many Black women today.
Stake your claim in history and own your power with our stylish Silk Lined Bonnets in bold African Prints. P.S You can wear them anywhere!