Thursday, December 17, 2009

And She in Her Kerchief: A Very Brief Look At the Breakfast Cap

Roustabout Jack London, author of The Call of the Wild and other manly classics, doesn't seem an obvious source for details of female fashion history. Yet in The Valley of the Moon, one of his characters asks another gruffly about a particular piece of headgear:

"'Say,' he said, 'what's become of that frilly breakfast cap you was workin' on so hard, I ain't never seen you wear it . . . "

I second that question. What has become of breakfast caps?

More importantly, what is a breakfast cap, and why did ladies wear them?

First, a visual from authoritative online vintage experts

Frilly yes indeed. As you can see, a breakfast cap is essentially a confection of lace, ribbon, and embroidery, soft upon the head and moldable upon the pillow. That's because some breakfast caps worked the night shift as bedcaps ("boudoir cap" is yet another possible term). Anyway, if worn during sleep they helped protect the elaborate coiffures, or less elaborately, braids and pins, of the sleeping lady's head. Come dawn, breakfast caps provided a cordon sanitaire for bedhead, which would have been far more disreputable in their day than in ours. Turned out in her breakfast cap, a lady was dressed -- and unlikely to startle servants, husband, or children.

Styles in breakfast caps came and went, as this bulletin from the 1911 New York Times made clear.

They do seem quite quaint. But not without practical value. I can't be the only woman who routinely scares herself with that first glance in the mirror first thing in the morning. Could it be that the breakfast cap is well due for a revival?

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