In the first scholarly museum exhibit to use hats and the millinery trade as a metaphor for the progression of art and women during the height of the Impressionist era, (from start of the Third French Republic until the outbreak of World War I, 1875 to 1914), “Degas, Impressionism, and the Paris Millinery Trade” explores the impact of women’s hats on art, economics, and fashion in Paris and wherever else women followed French haute couture.
Parisian women of all classes wore chapeaux matching their outfits whenever they went out in public, making the hat an important part of their wardrobe. The Paris millinery trade not only created avant-garde fashion, but it was also big business, employing over 1,000 millinery workers (many of whom were young women of marriageable age), as well as those suppliers who provided the fabrics, artificial flowers, feathers, ribbons, beads, lace and buckles to the mostly women creators of the hats.
Although one normally associates the art of Edgar Degas (1834−1917) with ballet dancers, he was also fascinated by high fashion hats and the shop women who made and sold them. His studio was in the fashion district; so he was familiar with the millinery retailers. Degas maintained a covey of women friends, including Mary Cassatt, and kept up an interest in their fashion design preferences.
“Degas, Impressionism, and the Paris Millinery Trade” brings together 27 paintings and pastels by Degas that portray hats, their wearers, their makers and their sellers. Of particular interest are Degas’ oil on canvas, “Woman Adjusting her Hair” (1884), which shows only the silhouette of the model as she fixes her hat, “The Millinery Shop” (1879-1886) illustrates a milliner surrounded by hats of various textures and colors, and Degas’ rare “Portrait of Mary Cassatt” (1880-1884), which Cassatt found unflattering (great hat, though).
Over 13 other examples related to the millinery trade by first-tier Impressionists are on also display, including paintings by Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Édouard Manet, Mary Cassatt, and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, lent by the Musée d’Orsay, the Art Institute of Chicago, the J. Paul Getty Museum, and the St. Louis Museum of Art, a partner in this exhibit.
If you look closely at the hat in Mary Cassatt’s “Portrait of Madame J (Young Woman in Black)” (1883), you can see bird wings. The several Renoir portraits of young girls in hats are sweet and unpretentious. His “The Milliner” (1879) has a fine Impressionistic flair. Édouard Manet’s portrait of the fine Impressionist painter, Berthe Morisot is one of eleven that he painted of the artist, who was married to his younger brother, Eugène.
Approximately 40 hats of the period are also on display, some by famous makers, such as Maison Virot and Caroline Reboux, who catered to the titled and elite. Many of these are extravagant exercises in the avant garde and fashion forward, made with plumes, flowers, lace and feathers. A silk hat with jet beads (by an unknown maker) actually has a stuffed African starling affixed to it. There is one gallery of men’s hats that includes top hats, boaters and bowler hats of the era along with Impressionist portraits of men (and a few women) wearing them.
The Legion of Honor Museum, one of the two Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, includes on its web site a free 40-minute digital exhibition guide, or digital story, to provide audiences with the opportunity to learn about this exhibit before coming to see it. It’s a good idea, since “Degas, Impressionism, and the Paris Millinery Trade” is a nuanced show that combines serious scholarship with fun for the fashionistas.
By Emily S. Mendel
© Emily S. Mendel 2017 All Rights Reserved