Degas, Impressionism, and the Paris Millinery Trade

June 24–September 24, 2017

Crowd under the Eiffel Tower during the 1889 Paris Exposition, January 1, 1900

Crowd under the Eiffel Tower during the 1889 Paris Exposition, January 1, 1900. Photograph. Bettmann Collection, SF758. © Getty Images

In the late 19th century, you were not fully dressed without a hat. Propriety demanded that a hat be worn outside of the home and as a result, these headpieces were everywhere, and were often the subjects of acclaim and critique. Millinery, the making and selling of women’s hats, grew to be a boundless, modern, and fashionable industry employing thousands of women.

Through the works of Impressionist artists, most notably Edgar Degas, this groundbreaking exhibition explores the heyday of the millinery trade in Paris, the fashion capital of the world at the time. The artworks show the artistry of milliners and offer a glimpse into their world, where, beneath the sheen of modern style, a female workforce vied for success in a booming and competitive market. This is the first exhibition to explore the Impressionists’ remarkably rich visual imagery around this popular accessory and its impact on contemporary urban life in Paris in the period roughly between the Franco-Prussian War (1870–1871) and the outbreak of World War I (1914).

Hats, their makers and wearers, and the shops in which hats were made and sold fascinated countless artists who documented modern Parisian life. Many of these artists exhibited in the Impressionist exhibitions between 1874 and 1886 or were close to the artists who did. Their artworks reveal much about gender roles, changing social structure, the birth of modern consumerism, and global impacts of mass production.

“[The hat] is the dress’s crowning glory, the final touch.”

Arsène Alexandre, art critic and fashion writer, 1902

The Milliner’s World

image credit

Paul Boyer, Maison Alphonsine—Le Salon Empire, Madame Alphonsine and Her Premières, in “Une grande modiste au XXe siecle,” Les Modes (detail), October 1904, 21. Photograph. Bibliotheque nationale de France, Paris, FOL-V-4312

The second half of the 19th century witnessed the drastic expansion of women joining the workforce. Between 1866 and 1906 employment in France increased by one million women. The garment industry accounted for 80 percent of this growth. There were approximately 1,000 millinery shops employing roughly 8,000 people, generally women, in Paris. Shops such as this were fashionable sites, abuzz with commerce, where varied social classes converged.

This painting by James Tissot provides a glimpse into the relationship between purchasers and producers. The shop contains mounds of ribbons and material at the ready to customize a hat. Tissot’s parents were textile and fashion merchants—and at one point, his mother was a milliner—which may account for his lifelong interest in depicting high fashion and its nuances. Like other artists in his circle, he was interested in recording scenes of modernity. He trained in Paris in the 1860s and was close with Degas and other Impressionist artists, although he never exhibited with them in their group exhibitions.

James Tissot, "The Shop Girl", 1883–1885

James Tissot, The Shop Girl, 1883–1885. Oil on canvas, 57 1/2 x 40 in. (146.1 x 101.6 cm). Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto, Gift from Corporations’ Subscription Fund, 1968. Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto / Bridgeman Images. Oil on canvas, 57 1/2 x 40 in. (146.1 x 101.6 cm). Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto, Gift from Corporations’ Subscription Fund, 1968. Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto / Bridgeman Images

  • Brown, Chicago, importer, woman’s bonnet, ca. 1894. Straw, velvet, lace, and ribbon, 10 x 8 in. (25.4 x 20.3 cm) overall; ribbon ties 27 x 1 in. (68.6 x 2.5 cm). Chicago History Museum, Gift of Mrs. J. J. Glessner via Art Institute of Chicago, 1960.612

  • Anonymous, Woman’s bonnet, last quarter of the nineteenth century. Straw, velvet ribbon, cotton plain weave, twisted paper and wire flowers, and silk lining, 9 1/2 x 9 x 4 in. (24.1 x 22.9 x 10.2 cm) overall (without ties). Museum of Fine Arts Boston, Gift of Miss Amelia Peabody and Mr. William S. Eaton, 46.324. Photograph © 2017 Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

  • Madame Hartley, retailer, woman’s bonnet, ca. 1860s–1870s. Silk velvet, silk and cotton voided velvet, metal seed beads, dyed ostrich feathers, and silk satin ribbon with white cotton lace, 5 x 11 in. (12.7 x 27.9 cm). Philadelphia Museum of Art, Gift of the heirs of Charlotte Hope Binney Tyler Montgomery, 1996-19-31

  • E . Gauthier, designer, woman’s capote, ca. 1890. Silk tulle, velvet, ostrich feather, pongee, paper, and metallic thread, 9 7/8 in. (25 cm) length; 8 1/4 in. (21 cm) width. Musée des arts décoratifs, Paris, UFAC collection, Gift of Mlle. de Lestrange, 1954, UF 54-69-63

  • Mesdemoiselles Cotel, designers, woman’s bonnet, ca. 1885. Silk velvet, silk flowers, dyed ostrich feathers, and silk satin ribbon, 8 1/2 x 8 x 8 in. (21.6 x 20.3 x 20.3 cm) overall. Philadelphia Museum of Art, Gift of Mr. and Mrs. George K. Rogers, 1970-263-11

  • Camille Marchais, designer, woman’s hat, ca. 1895. Silk geranium flowers, leaves, and velvet, 8 1/2 in. (21.6 cm) height; 8 in. (20.3 cm) diameter. Chicago History Museum, Gift of Mrs. Albert J. Beveridge, 1949.306

  • Annie & Georgette, designers, woman’s bonnet, ca. 1885. Silk velvet and metallic braid, 9 x 7 in. (22.9 x 17.8 cm). Philadelphia Museum of Art, Gift of Mrs. Henry W. Farnum, 1948-18-44. Unknown maker, woman’s bonnet, last quarter of the 19th century. Straw, silk velvet ribbon, cotton plain weave, twisted paper and wire flowers, and silk lining, 9 1/2 x 9 x 4 in. (24.1 x 22.9 x 10.2 cm) overall (without ties). Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Gift of Miss Amelia Peabody and Mr. William S. Eaton, 46.324

“[Premières are,] in effect, queens, who no longer ply a trade but make art.”

Charles Benoist, labor journalist, 1890

Maison Virot, design house, woman’s hat, ca. 1895

Maison Virot, design house, woman’s hat, ca. 1895. Silk velvet ribbon, ostrich and bird of paradise feathers, paillettes, and metal buckle, 8 x 9 x 7 in. (20.3 x 22.9 x 17.8 cm). Chicago History Museum, Gift of Mrs. Albert J. Beveridge, 1949.297

Maison Virot, design house, woman’s hat, ca. 1900, with alterations

Maison Virot, design house, woman’s hat, ca. 1900, with alterations. Plaited straw over wire frame, silk velvet and maline, silk roses, leaves, and ferns, 15 1/2 x 15 in. (39.4 x 38.1 cm) overall. Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, Gift of Jane Scribner, 49.10.25

Few milliners achieved the success of Madame Virot. She began her career as an assistant and rose in the ranks to ultimately open her millinery house. Recalling a visit by artist Édouard Manet to her shop, the novelist Marcel Proust wrote, “It was the hats of a famous milliner, Madame Virot, that enthralled him. . . . He could not stop talking about the splendor of the things he had seen at Madame Virot’s.” Virot served a clientele that included the Empress Eugénie, wife to Napoleon III, and other European and American elites. By the late 1880s, she is said to have become a millionaire.

Pierre-Auguste Renoir, The Milliner, ca. 1879

Pierre-Auguste Renoir, The Milliner, ca. 1879. Pastel on paper, 21 x 16 1/4 in. (53.3 x 41.3 cm). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, The Lesley and Emma Sheafer Collection, Bequest of Emma A. Sheafer, 1973, 1974.356.34

The son of a tailor and a dressmaker, Pierre-Auguste Renoir was attracted to the subject of millinery and purchased many hats for his models to wear. Here he has depicted a delivery girl, or trottin, outside a shop, a hatbox in her hand and her employer’s creations visible through the window behind her. A trottin was typically the youngest employee of a millinery shop and occupied the lowest level within the shop’s hierarchy. She navigated Paris at a time when women generally did not walk the streets unaccompanied. While Renoir presented her as smiling at the viewer, the trottins’ reality was in fact difficult; often traveling long distances on foot to perform their duties, they received little pay, and many found it necessary to hold additional jobs to support themselves.

Between the première (shop owner or chief designer) at the top and the trottin (errand girl) at the bottom of the millinery hierarchy were the formers, preparers, and trimmers who shaped, covered, and decorated the hats. Girls generally entered the trade as young as age 13 as apprentices and might not reach the level of trimmer until the age of 22. Although milliners were the highest-paid workers in the garment industry, the wages of those on the bottom rungs were so low that many women resorted to other means of income, even prostitution—a situation that was often supposed about milliners whether it were true or not.

François Courboin, illustration of a millinery workshop from Arsène Alexandre, "Les reines de l’aiguille: Modistes et couturières" (Paris: Théophile Belin, 1902)

François Courboin, illustration of a millinery workshop from Arsène Alexandre, Les reines de l’aiguille: Modistes et couturières (Paris: Théophile Belin, 1902) (detail). Courtesy of the Bibliothèque nationale de France, Paris

Modiste: milliner, one who makes or sells hats

Première: the shop’s most skilled designer, sometimes the shop owner

Garnisseuse: trimmer, a milliner responsible for the decoration of the hat

Apprêteuse: preparer, a milliner who covered the hat with its basic visible material and color

Formière: former, a milliner who constructed the armature (structural frame) of the hat

Trottin: errand girl who delivered hats to their new owners

Bassano Ltd, "Hat-making (Maison Lewis)", October 5, 1910

Bassano Ltd, Hat-making (Maison Lewis), October 5, 1910. Whole-plate glass negative. Given by John Culme, 1996. © National Portrait Gallery, London

Women entering any aspect of the Parisian work force, no matter how prestigious, faced pervasive stereotypes. They had to contend with misogyny and backlashes against their new ability to earn wages, resulting from society’s uneasy projections and imaginations about independent women. This satirical print, published in a fashion journal from the early 1800s, contains elements of the common mythology about the female milliner that would plague those working in the industry for the next hundred years. Use the icons to zoom in on the image and learn how each detail reflects stereotypical views of female milliners.

Pierre de La Mésangère, "Atelier de modistes", 1802–1812, number 28 of Le bon genre

Pierre de La Mésangère, Atelier de modistes, 1802–1812, number 28 of Le bon genre. Hand-colored etching, 8 1/8 x 10 3/8 in. (20.6 x 26.3 cm). The British Museum, London, 1866,0407.889. © The Trustees of the British Museum

Édouard Manet, At the Milliner’s, 1881. Oil on canvas, 33 1/2 x 29 in. (85.1 x 73.6 cm). Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, Museum Purchase, Mildred Anna Williams Collection, 1957.3

The ambiguous representation of female milliners was not confined to the popular press but also reflected in fine art. Here Édouard Manet has placed a modiste within an intimate environment—as revealed by her casual dress and bared shoulder—that could be read in a number of ways. One explanation is that the woman may be the proprietor of a hat shop that also functions as an establishment for clandestine prostitution, making her a madam as well as a modiste. Another is that this woman has turned her living establishment into a millinery shop, which would account for her casual state of partial undress. 

Atget, Interieur de Mme C., Modiste, 1910 (detail). Albumen print, 8 7/8 x 6 7/8 in. (22.5 x 17.6 cm). Bibliothèque nationale de France, Paris, BNF-Est. Oa 173. G045687 Atget 736. Courtesy of the Bibliothèque nationale de France, Paris

The photographer Eugène Atget included this image of the home of "Madame C" in his album documenting the Parisian millinery trade. Though Madam C is otherwise unidentified and her shop does not appear in commercial directories of the time, this photograph confirms that her home was used for millinery activities. The comingling of public shop with private living quarters was common and not necessarily a sign of prostitution. Instructive texts were published in order to give women the skills they needed to manufacture or trim hats at home.

Degas in the Hat Shop

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Edgar Degas, The Millinery Shop (detail), 1879–1886. Oil on canvas, 39 3/8 x 43 5/8 in. (100 x 110.7 cm). The Art Institute of Chicago, Mr. and Mrs. Lewis Larned Coburn Memorial Collection, 1933.428 L832. Bridgeman Images

This print of Edgar Degas with a top hat depicts him at 42 years of age, around the time of the second Impressionist exhibition in Paris, in 1876. Degas is famous for his pictures of dancers and laundresses, but is lesser known for his series of millinery images, which he produced intermittently between the mid-1870s and 1910. An interest in fashion was in his blood; his father was a wealthy Italian-French banker who cultivated a dapper persona, and his American mother was from a fashionable New Orleans family. In the context of Degas’s intense interest in female subjects, ranging from ballet dancers to milliners, it is interesting to note he never married and had few known intimate relationships. His closest recorded female relationship was his 49-year friendship with the American expatriate painter Mary Cassatt. It was Degas who invited Cassatt to participate in the Impressionist group shows, in which he was an active participant.

Marcellin Desboutin, "Degas Wearing a Hat", 1876

Marcellin Desboutin, Degas Wearing a Hat, 1876. Drupoint, 8 ¾ x 5 ¾ in. (22/3 x 14.5 cm). Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, Museum purchase, gift of Mr. and Mrs. George D. Hart, 1985.1.31

Edgar Degas, "The Millinery Shop", 1879–1886

Edgar Degas, The Millinery Shop (detail), 1879–1886. Oil on canvas, 39 3/8 x 43 5/8 in. (100 x 110.7 cm). The Art Institute of Chicago, Mr. and Mrs. Lewis Larned Coburn Memorial Collection, 1933.428 L832. Bridgeman Images

Maison Virot, Presentation of the new hats of the season, 1911. Film clip. © Gaumont Pathé Archives

Over the last three decades of his life, Degas created 27 works representing millinery and milliners. He offered a particularly sensitive approach to his subjects, treating them with seriousness and compassion. Degas spent much time in millinery shops. The studios he used throughout his lifetime were never more than a mile away from the heart of the fashion district on the rue de la Paix. He often accompanied fellow artist Mary Cassatt, an avid shopper, on hat-buying expeditions.

In this early image of a millinery shop we can see Degas’s fascination with the hats themselves; they foreground the painting and present a range of spring colors and materials. Millinery shops were ornate, highly decorated spaces. Degas simplified the background to draw attention to both the hats and the well-dressed seated woman—probably a première—working intently on an apricot felt hat.

“[Degas] professed the deepest admiration for the very human qualities of young shopgirls.”

Berthe Morisot

Edgar Degas, "At the Milliner’s", 1882

Edgar Degas, At the Milliner’s, 1882. Pastel on paper, 26 3/8 x 20 in. (67 x 52 cm). Musée d’Orsay, Paris, RF 52075 L683

In this radically cropped pastel work of 1882, Degas depicts a fitting session. The customer on the left tries on a hat before a mirror while a shopgirl leans forward to pick up hats off the table. Degas’s depictions of female milliners become even more sympathetic in his later pastels, which, interestingly, he did not sell but kept with him until his death. We see only a portion of the shopgirl’s tenderly rendered face through the looming hats. The hats obscure her, similar to the way that the display of hats as luxury commodities typically concealed the labor necessary to create them.

Degas on occasion visited millinery shops with his friend the artist Mary Cassatt. While she did not paint the shop itself, her work, frequently featuring fashionable women, attests to the ever-present nature of hats during this period. In this particular portrait, the hat plays a central role in the composition, drawing attention to the sitter’s facial features as it simultaneously obscures them by the delicate attached veil. Above the hat, Cassatt included a painted fan created by Degas. Cassatt owned this work and considered it a favorite possession. Its appearance in this portrait demonstrates not only her respect for Degas as an artist but also their shared interest in Japanese aesthetics. In addition to inviting Degas to accompany her to visit milliners, Cassatt also served as a model for several of his millinery works. Theirs was a relationship between artists: professional, competitive, and complicated. They supported and challenged each other as well as collected one another’s works.

Mary Cassatt, "Portrait of Madame J (Young Woman in Black)", 1883

Mary Cassatt, Portrait of Madame J (Young Woman in Black), 1883. Oil on canvas, 31 1/2 x 25 in. (80 x 63.5 cm). Collection of the Maryland State Archives: The Peabody Art Collection, MSA SC 4680-10-0010

Who Buys a Hat?

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Edgar Degas, Woman Viewed from Behind (Visit to a Museum) (detail), ca. 1879–1885. Oil on canvas, 32 x 29 3/4 in. (81.3 x 75.6 cm). National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC, Collection of Mr. and Mrs. Paul Mellon, 1985.64.11. Courtesy National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC

Madame Pouyanne, designer, woman’s bonnet, ca. 1885 “Plighted their Troth: Miss Goad and Mr. Osgood Hooker to Wed in the Near Future. A society announcement.”

Madame Pouyanne, designer, woman’s bonnet, ca. 1885. Wool felt, silk velvet, silk embroidery in satin stitches, and bird of paradise, cock, and other feathers, 8 5/8 x 6 1/4 x 6 1/4 in. (22 x 16 x 16 cm) overall. Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, Gift of Osgood Hooker, 51.29.6

“Plighted their Troth: Miss Goad and Mr. Osgood Hooker to Wed in the Near Future. A society announcement.” San Francisco Call, Volume 78, Number 177, 24 November 1895

In the hands of the most expert milliners, hats achieved the sculptural impact of an art object. These hats were luxury items, with average prices of about 100 francs each, escalating into several hundred francs or more for the very finest creations that used the most expensive materials. At this time the standard daily wage for a male Parisian worker was five to seven francs a day; female workers earned half that amount. For the women who purchased these designs, hats served as crucial signifiers of individuality, style, and, ultimately, social status. French hats were highly coveted by shoppers on both sides of the Atlantic.

This hat was purchased by Ella Goad Hooker, a wealthy San Franciscan who probably acquired it on an eight-month grand tour of Europe. Of course not all American women could travel to France, so, as a global economy continued to emerge, French-produced hats and hats produced in American shops from licensed French designs appeared in many major cities in America.

“If your purse allows you two hats, you will have one of straw, which can go with everything . . . and the other will go with your best outfit.”

"Le Journal des demoiselles", 1867

Michel-Charles Fichot, "Grand Staircase of Au Bon-Marché", 1872

Michel-Charles Fichot, Grand Staircase of Au Bon-Marché, 1872. Engraving. Bibliothèque nationale de France, Paris, VA270j-folio, H50951

Throughout the 19th century the millinery trade was dominated by independent stores. Women of every social standing found individual shops that catered to their needs. Nonetheless, the purchase of hats was part of a growing consumer-based culture that was fed by modern advertising and the invention of the department store, which sold mass-produced versions. This print from 1878 captures the sheer pageantry of these spaces. Here objects were displayed in elaborate arrangements that were designed to impress, overwhelm, and seduce the public, especially women, into buying. The countless bustled figures indicate the target audience as fashionable women of means. The grand staircase offered countless vistas that allowed the shopper to encounter an endless array of objects, all the while engaging in the social exchange of seeing and being seen by other shoppers.

Henriot, Tomorrow’s Styles, from Le Charivari, ca. 1892. Lithograph, 11 1/2 x 10 1/2 in. (29.2 x 26.7 cm). Private collection. Courtesy Saint Louis Art Museum, photograph by Brian van Camerik

The popular press as well as writers published stories that criticized female shoppers for succumbing to the allure of department-store merchandizing, spending money their families could ill afford to waste. These women were depicted as frivolous and impulsive, who suffered from “uncontrollable desires” stoked by the alluring display techniques and the many goods available. Then as now, consumer culture was propelled by changing fashions, and the modern woman’s ongoing quest for the latest style was also lampooned in the press. Women who purchased extravagant hats, for example, were confronted with demeaning representations in word and image, such as this satirical print, which depicts women sporting hats with such outrageous trimmings as a burning candle, a bird perch, and an entire pot of flowers.

Fabia Hat, from La Modiste universelle, March 1885. Color lithograph, 14 x 10 1/4 in. (35.6 x 26 cm). Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, Bequest of John Gutmann, 2000.119.3.89

The vastly expanding fashion press actively constructed a counter narrative to the often critical view of fashion in the popular culture. Flooding the market with weekly publications that were sometimes distributed internationally, these journals provided women with insights into the latest trends regarding the shapes, colors, and trimmings for their hats. In these journals, shopping was the activity of the modern woman who selected items to express her independence, individual agency, and style. The female consumer was thus dually presented as a flighty spendthrift and as a woman artfully crafting her self-image.

Edgar Degas, In the Wings (detail), ca. 1881. Pastel on paper, 26 x 15 in. (66 x 38 cm). Private collection, UK L715. Courtesy of Pyms Gallery, London

This pastel presents a backstage scene, truncated to highlight a singer’s concentration before she steps on stage. Crowded next to her is a hovering man wearing a top hat. This style was originally worn by men of all social classes but by the 1870s was typically worn only by those of the middle and upper classes. The hat marks him as an affluent operagoer, like Degas himself, who was allowed access to the wings and rehearsal rooms to interact with the female performers. Such a highly charged situation would have been understood by viewers to be laced with titillation. The man’s hat therefore symbolizes not only his wealth but also his masculine privilege.

Edgar Degas, Standing Man in a Bowler Hat (detail), ca. 1870. Essence (thinned oil paint) on oiled brown paper, 12 3/4 x 7 7/8 in. (32.3 x 20.1 cm). The Morgan Library & Museum, New York, Bequest of John S. Thacher, 1985.39 L344

Degas created this study using an innovative technique that he created by thinning oil paint with turpentine to a consistency that allowed him to “draw” with it. The subject is possibly the artist’s younger brother, Achille. The treatment of the bowler hat, or chapeau melon in French, suggests Degas’s interest in men’s hat styles as well as women’s. The dark shading and bright highlights surrounding the hat reveal the artist’s study of the form and volume of the bowler. A reworked area alongside the back brim shows the artist’s preoccupation in capturing just the correct angle of the hat. Bowlers were generally a much more functional style compared to a top hat. The style was widely adopted by the lower and middle classes. However, elite men would wear the style for informal occasions, and it had bohemian connotations as well. Degas himself wore the bowler increasingly in his later years.

Hat as Object

The hats in this exhibition were selected to show the beauty and intricacy of hats as art objects in their own right. Sophisticated designers could transform a basic hat form into a sculptural masterpiece with elaborate trimmings. The artists who documented the millinery world delighted in the stunning forms, colors, and textures of Parisian hats at the height of their production and influence.

Edgar Degas, "The Milliners", ca. 1898

Edgar Degas, The Milliners, ca. 1898. Oil on canvas, 29 5/8 x 32 1/4 in. (76 x 82 cm). Saint Louis Art Museum, Director’s Discretionary Fund; and gift of Mr. and Mrs. Wilbur D. May, Dr. Ernest G. Stillman, Mr. and Mrs. Sydney M. Shoenberg Sr. and Mr. and Mrs. Sydney M. Shoenberg Jr., Mr. and Mrs. Irving Edison, and Harry Tenenbaum, bequest of Edward Mallinckrodt Sr., and gift of Mr. and Mrs. S. J. Levin, by exchange, 25:2007 L1315. Courtesy Saint Louis Art Museum, photograph by Jean Paul Torno

This painting speaks to Degas’s underlying appreciation for the hat maker’s talent; he depicts these two milliners as artists. The woman on the right is caught in a moment of artistic consideration as she chooses between flowers or an ostrich plume. Degas has highlighted her active fingers as they work with the embellishments. The woman on the left holds a hat that resembles an artist’s palette both in its shape and in the placement of daubs of color. Degas has thus associated the milliner’s art with his own, acknowledging the link between creativity and labor.

Born into a moderately wealthy family and having achieved financial success on his own as an artist, Degas was free to explore color and abstraction in works that he probably did not intend for the market. Here he has played with the vibration and intensity of colors. The image is flattened, and the milliners’ faces are both hidden and blurred.

Madame Georgette, woman’s hat, ca. 1910. Silk lace, painted sized cotton plain-weave flowers and leaves, and silk stems on wire frame, 20 x 11 3/4 in. (50.8 x 29.8 cm) overall. Philadelphia Museum of Art, Gift of Mrs. Pierre Fraley, 1994-108-1. Courtesy of the Philadelphia Museum of Art

Flowers were a staple motif for women’s fashion in the 19th century. Their popularity both reflected and emphasized a longstanding idealized notion of femininity linking women to the natural world. The production of artificial flowers from silk, cotton, velvet, and even paper was a large industry in Paris. By the 20th century, an estimated 28,000 artificial flower makers were working in the city.

Mangin Maurice, designer, woman’s bonnet, ca. 1880. Cotton lace and plain weave with ostrich feathers, silk velvet ribbon, metal sequins, metal, and faceted glass stones, 8 3/8 x 10 1/2 x 3 3/4 in. 921.3 x 26.7 x 9.5 cm) overall (hat only); streamers 39 and 41 1/2 in. (99 x 105.4 cm) long. Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Purchased with funds provided by Suzanne A. Saperstein and Michael and Ellen Michelson, with additional funding from the Costume Council, the Edgerton Foundation, Gail and Gerald Oppenheimer, Maureen H. Shapiro, Grace Tsao, and Lenore and Richard Wayne, M.2007.211.660. Courtesy of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art

The Parisian hat industry supported a massive international trade in exotic feathers, particularly those from France’s African colonies. Exotic feathers were expensive and provided further embellishment to luxury hats. Impervious to the weather, natural feathers also made practical decorations. Plumage from domestic French birds, including seagulls and owls, were also used to decorate hats, as were preserved whole birds and parts. But by the last decade of the 19th century, conservationists were raising the alarm about the unbridled hunting of exotic birds, many species of which were becoming endangered. Ostrich plumes, which had been fashionable throughout the century, became even more popular as a result. Such plumes posed no issue with conservationists, because of the establishment of African ostrich farms and the fact that the large feathers could be safely removed from the bird without causing injury.

Unknown maker, woman’s hat, ca. 1890. Silk faille, velvet, cord, jet beads, and an African starling, 4 in. (10.2 cm) crown height; 8 1/4 x 9 in. (21 x 22.9 cm) overall. Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, Gift of Mrs. Caroline Schuman, 53020.6

"A Bird of Prey", cartoon from Punch, May 14, 1892

A Bird of Prey, cartoon from Punch, May 14, 1892. © Punch Limited

This hat has a full African starling perched above its brim. The plumage industry was responsible for the death of hundreds of millions of birds. It has been said that in just one year, 1911, 300 million birds were killed for the trade. These enormous numbers led to significant conservation efforts and the foundation of societies for the preservation of birds, including the Audubon Society in America and the English Society for the Protection of Birds. Much of the conservationists’ criticism was directed at French milliners. Laws were passed in the United Sates that banned the importation of exotic feathers, and the vogue for this extravagant hat plumage essentially came to an end by 1914, the start of World War I, when more streamlined styles came into fashion.

Hat making was a hazardous business. Hear from the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco’s Anne Getts, textiles conservator, and Laura Camerlengo, textiles curator, about the curious dangers of hat making.

Degas’s compassion for milliners is perhaps most clearly illustrated in this late painting. Here the hats and the milliner at right are presented in half-light, almost in silhouette. The brightly colored ribbons provide the only flashes of color. An exhausted-looking milliner stares abjectly through the hat stands on the table. Her hands seem frozen in the pink ribbon she works, the colorful sheen of which is reflected upon her greenish face, which may represent the unhealthy flush of illness or the result of hours of painstaking work.

Edgar Degas, "The Milliners", ca. 1882–before 1905

Edgar Degas, The Milliners, ca. 1882–before 1905. Oil on canvas, 23 1/4 x 28 1/2 in. (59.1 x 72.4 cm). The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, 2005.14 L1023. Bridgeman Images

Artistry & Tradition

Through the works of Degas and his contemporaries, we gain a glimpse into the millinery world, populated by countless craftswomen and their fashionable patrons. The hats within this exhibition bring into clear view the creativity and skill of the milliners who created sculptural works of art. Through the juxtaposition of these two objects—the painting and the hat—we gain a deeper appreciation of the greater visual culture of Paris in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, as well as the era’s societal norms, stereotypes, and economic pressures.

While the art of hat making has taken a much diminished role in our modern economy, San Francisco is home to one of the last active hat shops in the country to employ traditional tools and materials in the making of hats by hand. Paul’s Hat Works, located just blocks away from the Legion of Honor on Geary Street, produces contemporary interpretations of classic men’s hats and serves as a reminder of the dedication to quality and entrepreneurship that all successful milliners had to possess in Degas’s time. Visit with Abbie Dwelle, co-owner of Paul’s Hat Works, to learn about her unique collection of tools and her artistry.