European ladies in the mid-18th century wore very unique and strangely-shaped hats. They’re called a “bergere hat” or a “milkmaid hat”. We can see them in many paintings from the period. Also, we know that Marie Antoinette, the last queen of France before the French Revolution, wore these hats as well – they fit her pastoral look. What differs bergere hats from various other hat styles? How did they look like? Who wore them? And why were they associated with shepherdesses and milkmaids when being used by queens? Let’s find out the answers.
The name “bergere” hat literally means “shepherdess” hat. Also, people called it a “milkmaid hat”.
It was a wide-brimmed hat with a very low, almost flat crown. The hat was tied under the chin with a ribbon. Most often, these hats were made from straw, though, other materials could be used, too. Sometimes, bergere hats were covered with silk to add them more sophistication and price. Practically always, such hats were adorned with ribbons, flowers, and other decorative elements – obviously, 18th-century ladies typically wore ornate garments and accessories, not crude and simple ones. This was the period of bright decorations and eye-catching trimmings.
The wide brims of a milkmaid hat could be draped differently. A lady would change the shape a bit as she liked at the moment. The brims could be up-turned or down-turned, folded back, etc. This hat allowed some adjustments.
A bergere hat came into fashion in the 1730s and was widely used by women of different classes throughout the 18th century. By the way, this particular style of headdress returned again in the 1860s, but it wasn’t as popular in the 19th century as 100 years before.
Portrait of Eleanor Frances Dixie by Henry Pickering, 1750-1755. The portrait is stored in Nottingham City Museums & Galleries
Let’s return to our question, why bergere hats were associated with shepherdesses and milkmaids when being used by queens? We know for sure that originally, such simple wide-brimmed hats were used by female farmers because they were convenient. Straw was one of the most available materials, the low crown let the women forget about their headdress and work, and wide brims protected from the sun. But at the same time, the 18th century was a period when a so-called “pastoral fashion” was the vogue. High-status women, bored and spoiled by their wealth and unimaginable fashion trends, started to imitate the peasant women’s look. Even the queen of France Marie Antoinette loved to play a shepherdess – together with her court ladies, she dressed in costumes, similar in design to those worn by farmers, and pretended they were poor. It’s why the simple straw hat of shepherdesses and milkmaids became fashionable among noblewomen. But, of course, wealthy ladies richly decorated their hats with silks, flowers, ribbons, applique, embroidery, lace, and other embellishments.
A bergere hat, though looking a bit strange regarding the shape, has its own charm. Add to it all those beautiful adornments, and you’ll get a lovely accessory.