Cleophea Lavater-Pestaluz with a Hinterfür and a millstone collar, 1686. Image: Swiss National Museum

Fashion statement and status symbol: the Brämikappe fur hat

In the 17th century, very few women went without a Brämikappe. At least that is the impression we have from countless portraits of women from that time.

Murielle Schlup

Murielle Schlup

Freelance art historian and cultural scientist

What is a typical accessory in women’s portraits of the 17th century? As far as Switzerland is concerned, the answer is obvious: the Brämikappe fur hat. It frames the dignified faces of the women who look at us in numerous portraits from that period.

This fur hat, which was known in Berne not only as a Brämikappe but also as a Bräuikappe, Bräwikappe or Brawekappe, was called a Hinterfür in Zurich. It is not clear where this term comes from. Julie Heierli (1859–1938), a Swiss traditional costumes researcher, saw a possible connection to the dialect expression “z’hinterfür” (literally meaning “backwards, twisted, back to front” and figuratively meaning “crazy”).

“Hinterfür” made of marten pelt, 1600–1700. Image: Swiss National Museum

The cotton bonnet adorned with embroidery was worn under the fur hat. Image: Swiss National Museum

But with the Brämikappe, the back and the front, the top and the bottom, are very obvious. The back consists of a base, often covered in velvet and sometimes embroidered, which sits on the head. At the bottom, where ribbons were also often attached to tie the head covering under the chin, lies the opening to slip it on. All around, and especially at the front, the hat is impressively covered (trimmed) with fur, so the face appears to be set in a massive frame. The hair is completely concealed; the ears are not visible.

Another possibility, at least for the second part of the name “Hinterfür”, is that this is derived from the French word “fourrure”, meaning “fur”. In that case, the roots of the head covering may well lie in France: As the severe Spanish fashion – dark colours, heavy fabrics, high-necked dresses that fitted tightly around the neck – lost more and more influence at the end of the 16th century and France began to set the trend, presumably people living in the territory of modern-day Switzerland copied the French fur hats. Though they continued to embrace the Spanish style of dress for the time being. The puritanical Brämikappe suited this perfectly.

A woman’s hair was regarded in the past as provocative; showing it was considered indecent. For this reason, it had to be concealed beneath a bonnet after she got married, if not before. Women who wore a bonnet were visibly expressing to the outside world: I am married. From the wedding onwards, the bonnet became a permanent feature of the woman’s clothing and signalled an “orderly situation”. The bonnet had an underlying meaning: I am well-mannered, decent and behave discreetly.

The Brämikappe was not worn directly on the head but on top of a white bonnet made of fine linen fabric, which could be elaborately adorned with lace and embroidery to a greater or lesser extent. Depending on the fashion, this was not visible under the hat but it could also easily peek out on the sides and/or on the forehead.

Throughout the 17th century, and in some cases well beyond it, the Brämikappe was very popular in Switzerland, just as it was in the territory of southern Germany and in the Tyrol. It became a fashion statement and a must-have accessory. It was also a mark of distinction and a status symbol. High-society hats were made of noble sable, though marten pelts were also commonly used. Anyone who could not afford this resorted to sheep’s wool. Accordingly, demand was high. Soon, it was not just furriers who were making them. A new profession of fur hat makers emerged specifically for this hat.

Ana-Catarina Freudenreich (1650–1720) with a Brämikappe. Image: Swiss National Museum

Johannes Dünz (attributed), Johanna von Bonstetten-Manuel (1589–16??). Jegenstorf Castle Foundation

The more popular the Brämikappe became with women, the more it was frowned upon by the authorities. Dress codes, which the subjects had to follow, served to separate the social classes. In the interests of keeping the world evidently well-ordered, each class should be recognisable by its specific clothing. Styles, shapes, colours and fabrics – everything was precisely regulated, with rules on who could wear what, when and for what occasion. Clothes make people, as they knew long before Swiss author Gottfried Keller wrote about it...

At the same time, however, the rules also aimed to restrict group-specific and individual representational needs. Demure and reserved clothing was demanded, and any display of wealth and “sinful” extravagance, such as lots of jewellery, was heavily criticised.

The Brämikappe was therefore soon deemed by the guardians of public morals to be an item of wasteful vanity. The authorities felt that they needed to intervene as the Brämikappe had reached enormous dimensions in some cases. Padded out with wood shavings or tow and lined with light-coloured sheepskin or wool fabric, they could weigh up to a kilogram. Penalties and fines were introduced to bring this disagreeable fashion under control – they failed.

In France, the likely country of origin of the Brämikappe, this probably rather uncomfortable head covering soon fell out of favour. It did not match the new clothing fashion that began to spread from Paris and Versailles: light, flared, elegantly tailored silk dresses in soft colours with low necklines, playful lacing, frills and lace. The women also wore their hair in a variety of elaborate pinned-up hairstyles, preferably powdered white.

However, here in Switzerland it took a while for the women to be inspired by the elegant French fashion and to remove the millstone collar from around their necks. This landed, together with the Brämikappe, in the bottom of the wooden chest or – in the case of women who also followed the French fashion in furniture – tucked away in the bottom drawer of their new commodes. These were far more practical than the unwieldy old chests. While some examples of the latter were stored and passed down through generations, there are very few Brämikappe hats from this period still in existence. The Swiss National Museum has several specimens in its collection. A marten pelt Hinterfür and a bonnet adorned with luxuriant white embroidery, both from the 17th century, are currently on display in the “Our women” special exhibition at Jegenstorf Castle as loaned exhibits (see box).

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