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