Straw: Bonnets to Boaters - the evolution of straw hats exhibition at Hollytrees Museum

By Richard Moss | 13 October 2010
a photo of a straw boater with floral Britannia decoartion
A straw boater with Britannia decoration © Colchester and Ipswich Museum Service
Exhibition: Straw Bonnets to Boaters, Hollytrees Museum, Colchester, until February 27 2011.

Hollytrees has mined the straw hat collection of Colchester and Ipswich Museum services for a new exhibition looking at the development of the once ubiquitous bonnets from 1830 to the present day.

In the 19th century, straw plaiting was a significant cottage industry in some rural parts of Essex. Starting with bundles of straw, Essex women and children would work through the process of splitting, plaiting and dyeing. The plait was then sold to be made into hats.

a photo of a straw bonnet for a female
A straw bonnet from the nineteenth century© Colchester and Ipswich Museums
The exhibition explores some of the tools and techniques involved in creating straw hats and three paintings, including Woman Reading on a Couch by Philip Wilson Steer, reveal the fashions of straw bonnets through the ages.

"The hats on display cover a huge variety of fashionable styles all made of different types of straw," says Danielle Sprecher, Costume Curator at Colchester and Ipswich Museums. "We are also able to reveal three recently conserved bonnets including a Quaker bonnet and an intricate Tuscan straw bonnet."

To bring the display up to date a fascinator, featured in the Channel 5 programme Make Me a Supermodel, combines pheasant feathers from Witham and straw plait. In a twist on a long tradition the fashionable headpiece was made in Colchester – at the heart of the once booming straw cottage industry.
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