Degas: A Tip of the Hat to Milliners

by Jean Schiffman

New exhibition of 40 artworks at the Legion of Honor explores how milliners were depicted by the Impressionists.

In a sumptuous new exhibition, “Degas, Impressionism, and the Paris Millinery Trade,” two important paintings by artist Edgar Degas serve as bookends, highlighting one of the exhibition’s themes: the ways in which French women milliners were depicted by Impressionists between 1875 and 1914. How those artists, working in both pastels and oils, presented the hats and the hat-wearers (which was basically everyone, male or female, rich or poor) is also part of the story—a story that has never been told in this way, which is indeed a wonder, declares Melissa Buron, associate curator of European paintings at San Francisco Fine Arts Museums. The exhibition, now at the Legion of Honor, was organized by the Museums in partnership with the Saint Louis Art Museum; the 40 artworks on display are based on the collections of both museums, with some borrowed from other museums such as Paris’ Musée d’Orsay and Los Angeles’ J. Paul Getty Museum. Artists include Degas as well as Édouard Manet, Mary Cassatt, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Pierre-Auguste Renoir and others.

In the first of the Degas “bookends,” “The Millinery Shop” (1879/1886), the largest of his paintings on a millinery theme, the artist—who was “in some ways very difficult, a misogynist and misanthrope,” explains Buron—found an affinity with milliners. In it, a woman sits, one elbow resting on a table displaying five summery hats. She holds a sixth, which she is carefully examining, her head tilted at a slight angle, utterly absorbed, a hat pin between her lips. Two of three preparatory pastels, and an X-ray image taken to discern an earlier version, suggest that the figure was originally intended to be a well-heeled customer. But ultimately what appears instead is a shop girl in plain dress. “The painting captures wonderful details about what it means to be a milliner,” says Buron. She observes that rather than regarding milliners as lower class Degas elevates them to the status of “really important art makers in the 19th century.”

In fact, milliners at that time could rise to the top tier of working-class women, notes Laura L. Camerlengo, assistant curator of costume and textile arts at Fine Arts Museums. They’d start out as low-paid errand girls, delivering hats to customers, rise to the level of hat trimmers and assistants and designers and perhaps eventually open their own boutiques. A certain Mme. Virot, from a modest background, was reported to be a millionaire when she retired in 1885.

At the same time, though, Parisian society often saw milliners, or modistes, in a different and less flattering light. As with the figure in Degas’ “The Millinery Shop,” the identity of the woman in Manet’s “At the Milliner’s” (1881) is unknown. In profile with a hat in hand, another nearby, she is pictured with her shawl falling off to reveal a bare, white shoulder.
As explained in the catalog, she could be the madam of a brothel that masqueraded as a hat shop—many hatters were poorly paid and supplemented their wages with prostitution. On the other hand, sometimes hat-makers worked out of their own homes. Or Manet’s subject could simply be a woman chez elle looking at her hat.

Also on exhibit—and representing another theme of the exhibition, chapeaux as objets d’art in and of themselves—are 40 period hats, gathered from various sources (nine belong to the Fine Arts Museums) and displayed on wooden hat stands like those seen in the paintings. Hats of the era were delectable concoctions incorporating straw, velvet, felt, silk, satin, wool, muslin; they were broad brimmed, snug-fitting, high-rising, drooping, pert, grandiose, modest, decorated with an astonishing array of artificial flowers, beads, ribbons and bows, sequins, bird wings, feathers (especially from ostriches) and even, horrifyingly, entire birds. One such hat on exhibit from 1912 includes what appears to be an entire tawny owl with a staring glass eye, and another, a felt chapeau made in 1890, sports hummingbird heads along with golden pheasant feathers. Birds of paradise, starlings, egrets, peacocks and more—all were fair game, including now-endangered species, resulting in the eventual establishment of bird-protection societies. Ethical issues notwithstanding, hat-making required artistic skills and a deep knowledge of fabrics and textiles plus the aesthetic judgment to match the right hat to a woman’s face and form.

Camerlengo points to a personal favorite: a bonnet by the prestigious Mme. Pouyanne, ca. 1885, composed of wool felt, silk velvet and silk embroidery in tiny satin stitches with elegantly placed feathers of various sorts and cascading ribbons. “This really beautiful coil of ribbon,” says Camerlengo, “and the delicate stitches—you can think of someone sitting there meticulously making this perfect construction. It presents an interesting case study for the exhibition’s larger themes—a great piece of art, a wonderful hat belonging to a fascinating and important woman.” The owner was Ella Goad Hooker, the beautiful daughter of a San Francisco lawyer; she may have bought the bonnet while traveling in Europe in 1886. Her daughter donated it to the Fine Arts Museums.

Degas’ abiding interest in milliners continued over the years. As with “The Millinery Shop,” the exhibition’s other “bookend,” “The Milliners” (ca. 1882/before 1905), was examined through X-ray imaging and revealed the figure of a “privileged patron.” Degas ultimately changed her into a laborer—“completely altering the meaning of the picture,” asserts the catalog. He also added a coworker, in silhouette, to the composition. And by transforming the hats into amorphous shapes, points out Buron, he drew attention to the face of the milliner herself: “weary, tired, almost sickly,” her complexion greenish, her eyes gazing vacantly. (Hat-makers were also subject to “Mad Hatter’s Disease”—poisoning from the mercury sometimes used in part of the creation process.)

Degas’ final painting of the 27 on the hat-making theme, also called “The Milliners” (ca. 1898), was found in his studio when he died. Two modistes are working in tandem trimming a hat, the face of one hidden. Perhaps, as a catalog essay by Vassar French professor Susan Hiner suggests, this painting and others indicate Degas’, and the Impressionists’, respect for the milliner as a creative artist, with the hat as her palette.

Through Sept. 24

Legion of Honor, 100 34th Ave.,
San Francisco