- The Sunbonnet: An American Icon in Texas
The lowly sunbonnet receives its due in this attractively designed volume from Texas Tech University Press. Author and fashion historian Rebecca Jumper Matheson combines historical exploration, material culture examination, oral histories, patterns, a wealth of photos, and even literary references and textile care instructions to make the reader understand and appreciate the sunbonnet as an artifact of U.S. rural lifeways, especially in East Texas.
Matheson traces the origins of the sunbonnet to some of the more fashionable millinery of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and she includes a chapter on dress bonnets. But she shows that the sunbonnet has throughout its history been a chiefly utilitarian item and icon of country life; as early as the late eighteenth century it was "associated with practicality at best, and poverty and backwardness at worst, in more populated regions of the United States" (31).
Through her interviews with East Texas farm women born between 1912 and 1921, Matheson demonstrates that sunbonnets remained part of their daily lives well into their adulthoods. She discusses in detail the various styles and the ways in [End Page 203] which the bonnet proved useful outdoors. For example, it blocked both wind and sun rays. However, it also limited vision and intensified the Texas heat.
Matheson includes a chapter on "The Sunbonnet and White Skin" that addresses the long-term cultural emphasis on "pallor" as an indication of "increased femininity and attractiveness" (115). She explores what this might have meant to Anglo and minority farm women working outdoors. Interestingly, it was not until after World War I that sunbathing—purposely exposing one's skin to the sun—became a pastime among "fashionable women."
The book contains both apt historical photographs and beautiful color plates of many of the bonnets and trends under discussion. The voices and stories of the four women the author interviewed in 2004 add color and texture as well, contributing to a material culture study as charming and sensible as the fabrics and styles and decorative features of the head coverings gracing these pages.