This week we caught up with Hope Greenberg, a historical costumer who will lead our toque sewing workshops at the Jane Austen Summer Program in June. (Psst: Space is limited in our workshops, and an additional fee and advance registration are required. Sign up here! And as Hope will tell us later, no experience is necessary.) In 2016, Greenberg spoke at JASP about Regency fashion, and we're thrilled to talk to her about these particular hats.
Why make a toque?
Well, they are easier to make than bonnets, they are fun to dance in, they can be spruced up or redecorated as desired, and like Jane Austen says of her caps, they save a “world of torment as to hairdressing.”
Can you tell us a little about the origins/history of the toque?
Austen can delineate a character by using a few choice fashion-related phrases, but she rarely describes specific fashions. The majority of her letters certainly contain practical talk about clothing, but even those numerous examples are woefully short of descriptive details. In headwear, she rarely goes beyond the simple labels of hat, bonnet, or cap, so we cannot know if she wore toques.
The fashion magazines were, of course, the opposite of reticent. They needed to create new fashions and names for them: Stay ahead of the social mushrooms! Show you are part of the inner circle! Those names cause us a lot of confusion because they seem to apply to very different items. But, if we want to find the origin of toques, at least as they would have been known in the Austen era, then fashion magazines are the place to start as long as we pay attention to the dates as well.
The 1790s were all about big hair, big hats, and even bigger feathers. Turbans, with their yards of fabric wrapped around bursting curls, had been fashionable for some time, but in 1794 we find an interesting variation: In the May edition of Nikolaus Heideloff’s Gallery of Fashion we see a “Head-dress a la Turque.” It is a fez-like cap of red velvet, the lower half wrapped with a silver gauze turban, decorated with a diamond pin and four yellow ostrich feathers.
A similar hat was worn by the Mamelukes, the warrior class that was defeated by Napoleon at the Battle of the Pyramids in 1798. When Mamelukes joined Napoleon as his Imperial Guard and accompanied him back to France, their headwear became a fashion inspiration both there and in England. A few months later, Jane Austen wrote to Cassandra that she had borrowed a “Mamalouc cap.” As is frustratingly typical, she does not describe it, assuming Cassandra will know what it looks like. Fortunately for us, the Mameluke headdress remained in vogue for a few years so we can see versions of it, labeled as such, in the 1804 fashion plates “London Head-dresses, No. 73” and in the “Ladies Monthly Museum” among others.
This combination of a structured cap and turban begins to evolve in various forms. One French fashion plate shows a rounded cap instead of a flat-top cap but still has the turban-like wrapping. It is labeled a “Coeffure Asiatique.” (Austen-era fashion rule: When you don’t know what to name something, name it something exotic!) In the years after 1802 the word “toque” starts creeping into the fashion magazine lexicon but is used to describe slightly different objects. In addition to being used to describe a brimless hat wrapped with a turban, the term is applied to a hat that is made with a pouf with an attached headband. Sometimes the toque is made of velvet for outdoor wear, and sometimes there is an evening version, the Toque Parée, made of silk, with a headband and one or more additional bands. In England this headband/silk pouf toque shows up made of silver gauze, bearing the name “Egyptian Head-dress.” (And for fun, look closely at the woman in the far back right of Rolinda Sharples’ famous 1818 painting of the Cloakroom of the Clifton Assembly Rooms.) Yet a third variation looks more like a modern pillbox hat wrapped closely in fabric. Despite the variation in shapes, they all share one common element: They have no brims. So, we have a cylindrical structure wrapped with a turban, a headband with attached pouf, and a covered pillbox hat, all labeled as toques.
Toques fade away a bit after 1810, but there is a resurgence of interest in 1817. Even Americans get into the act: A famous 1817 portrait of Dolley Madison by Otis Bass shows her wearing a toque of blue silk covered with tulle and adorned with gold beads.
In 1818 Ackerman’s Repository of the Arts increasingly mentions toques in its fashion articles and includes them in its color fashion plates. Most are evening toques, but some, like the towering pea-green satin toque ornamented with flowers, is designed for outdoor wear. A similar style toque is worn by Anya Taylor-Joy in the recent film adaptation of "Emma."
Toques continue to grace the pages of fashion magazines. There are some experiments with odd shapes, but the key feature of a hat with no brim, some structure to keep it from flopping over, covered or wrapped with silk (usually white), then ornamented, remains constant. As the 1820s progress, toques, like all fashionable dress, begin to take on prodigious proportions. The band is still apparent but what happens above almost defies gravity.
What were they made of back in the day? Would women be able to make the hats themselves at home, or did they buy them from a millinery?
Outdoor or promenade toques in France were usually made of velvet — given that they appear stiff I’m assuming it is cotton velvet — at least, if you wanted to make one today that would be the easiest way. Evening toques in both England and France were usually made of silk and tulle. Sometimes the understructure was a rounded cap, sometimes it was the pillbox shape, and sometimes the toque was an odd shape that seemed to stay up by magic. They appear to be built on a buckram frame, much as a bonnet would be. But the fun part of toques is their decoration: Silk braids, ribbon cockades or bows, beads, pearls, twists of contrasting silk, trim, flowers, and feathers … and diamonds. Toques, like caps and bonnets, could be made by the industrious woman herself, but milliners would be the first choice of those who could afford them. However, toques lend themselves to being repurposed, like Lydia Bennet’s poor bonnet, to being pulled to pieces to be made up better so you could extend its life.
What can we expect in your workshop? Also, I have only a little experience sewing. Can I still participate in the workshop?
In this workshop you will be creating a toque that a lady might wear to an evening event. In general, we’ll be using the toque styles from the late 18-teens as our inspiration, though not excessively tall! The construction is essentially a buckram frame similar to a bonnet with the crown (the upright cylinder), and a tip (the round “lid” on top), but no brim. In order for us to complete a toque that can be worn right away, I will be pre-sewing a number of these buckram frames and covering them with silk. Most of the basic coverings, like the fashionable toques of the time, will be white. These partially completed toques will be in a number of sizes and heights so we will try to make sure everyone has a toque that fits.
Your task? First, don’t worry: There will be many pictures and sample ideas for inspiration. So, during the workshop you need only adorn your toque according to your own taste, with the tulle, trim, silk, beads, ribbon, flowers, and feathers (no diamonds!) that will be provided. The only sewing required will be simple tacking stitches — if you know how to sew on a button you can sew well enough for this workshop!
Your toque will not be lined but you can add a lining later if you choose. (And honestly, I prefer not to line my toques because that makes them cooler for dancing.) Also, in case you would like to learn more about the entire toque-building process and history, I’ll include instructions and a materials list as well as an article with lots of images.
What's your favorite hat that you've made or owned?
Though I am very happy with my “Dolley Madison” toque, I still love the white bonnet based on a fashion plate from Ackermann’s Repository of Art 1815. It’s like wearing a cloud of meringue.
JASP attendees can choose from two toque workshops: Friday, June 17, from 12:30 to 2 p.m., and Saturday, June 18, from 12:30 to 2 p.m. Space is limited. An additional fee and advance registration are required. Sign up here!