In the late nineteenth century, hats were essential accessories for both men and women across the social spectrum. As an informal group of avant-garde artists—dubbed the Impressionists—began to reject traditional academic subjects in favor of painting scenes of everyday life in Paris, hats took center stage in canvases capturing the minutiae of the modern world. A new exhibition at the Saint Louis Art Museum, “Degas, Impressionism, and the Paris Millinery Trade,” unites intimate Impressionist paintings of Belle Epoque milliners and their clients with surviving examples of the chic chapeaux that inspired them.
These flowered, feathered and frilled confections were works of art in their own right, with price tags to match; the Impressionists recognized their creators as kindred spirits. The milliners in their paintings are depicted as not just window dressing, but as fellow artists; in some scenes, such as The Milliners in the Saint Louis Art Museum’s collection, the colorful hats in their hands even resemble artist’s palettes. At its height, the Paris hatmaking industry employed nearly one thousand milliners, most of them female, ranging from famous names like Caroline Reboux and Jeanne Lanvin to anonymous ouvrières and trottins. In addition, the industry encompassed the major secondary trades that provided its materials, notably fleuristes, who created artificial flowers, and plumassiers, who prepared bird plumage. Although centered in Paris, millinery was a global trade, as feathers imported from Africa and South America adorned hats exported to New York and Chicago.
While milliners appear on streets and inside shops in the Impressionist paintings of Pierre-August Renoir, Édouard Manet, and Eva Gonzalès, no artist was more attuned to this engine of modern mercantilism than Edgar Degas, who explored the theme of millinery in twenty-seven paintings and pastels. Like the ballerinas and jockeys Degas is best known for painting, milliners occupied a marginal social space, where working-class artisans could mingle with the upper crust. An inveterate window-shopper along with his friend and fellow artist Mary Cassatt, Degas often foregrounded the hats in his paintings, turning these overlooked accessories into the main event. Some of the same hats appeared in different Degas images, suggesting that he kept a collection in his studio.
For Degas, hats represented modern commodity culture, as well as offering an endless source of variety, color and texture. While the capacious bonnets of the early nineteenth century protected the wearer’s face from the elements and her modesty from prying eyes, by the 1870s, women’s hats were purely ornamental, offering little protection from the elements. “A hat is nothing but a pretext for a feather, an excuse for a spray of flowers, the support for an aigrette, the fastening for a plume of Russian cock’s feathers,” wrote Charles Blanc in his 1875 treatise L’art dans la parure et dans le vêtement. “It is placed on the head, not to protect it, but so that one can see it better. Its great usefulness is to be charming.”
The capote (French for “hood”) popular in the 1850s and 1860s made a resurgence in the late 1880s for evening and reception wear. It was considered flattering to most faces and, though small in size, could be rich in ornamentation; one example in the show is made of silk tulle, velvet and pongee, a lightweight raw silk, topped by ostrich feathers. “The tendency now is to make [capotes] very decorative,” Vogue reported in 1893. “All sorts of jeweled passementerie, embroidered crêpes and tulles enter into their composition, and notwithstanding their diminutive size they are sometimes very costly.” In 1893, the duchesse de Maillé attended an exhibition opening wearing a capote “covered with mistletoe, the berries being represented by gigantic pearls and the leaves by emeralds, which attracted much notice, so close to nature was this costly imitation of Christmas ‘blossoms.’ ”
Instead of shielding their wearer, hats increasingly served as blank canvases for all manner of trimmings and decorations, including not just feathers but the wings, heads and even entire bodies of birds. These avian ornaments lent dimension and visual interest to the low, brimless toque hats popular around the turn of the century. “Birds, alas, entire seagulls rest on these toques, or else a bird’s head forms the middle in front, the two wings spread out to cover the whole hat,” the weekly magazine La Semaine littéraire declared in 1901. These small toques quickly ballooned into wide, mushroom-shaped nests for pheasants, birds of paradise, hummingbirds, peacocks, and even owls, all mounted with glass eyes. Curiously, Degas never painted these birdlike hats, preferring to depict ostrich feathers, although probably for aesthetic rather than moral reasons.
In nineteenth-century France, colibri (French for “hummingbird”) was used as slang for a frivolous person, making the frolicsome creature an especially fitting fashion emblem. European and North American incursions into Central and South America made hummingbirds found there readily available to fashion dealers as well as specimen collectors. The tiny birds’ iridescent feathers, heads, skins, and even entire bodies were incorporated into hats and jewelry, including hummingbird-head earrings and brooches.
In 1911, it was estimated that the Paris fashion industry was responsible for the deaths of three hundred million birds per year. Growing concern over the rampant pillaging of exotic bird populations for their plumage led to the formation of England’s Royal Society for the Protection of Birds in 1889 and America’s Audubon Society in 1913. The use of game and poultry feathers remained morally neutral, as did ostrich feathers, which could be plucked from the tail without harming the bird. As the tide of public opinion turned against so-called murderous millinery, French modistes increasingly employed their talents to lend exoticism to materials from non-endangered, domestic fowl like ducks and chickens, or create artificial “birds” out of feathers and glue.
Almost as popular as feathered hats were hats trimmed with artificial flowers, which tended to be worn in the summer and at the theater. Fashion designer Paul Poiret recalled in his memoirs that women’s hats transformed theaters into flower gardens. Fleuristes used a vast array of stamps, irons and goffers to transform delicate silks and muslins into flowers of astonishing botanical accuracy. Of the estimated twenty-four thousand fleuristes working in Paris between 1896 and 1906, eighty to eighty-five percent were women. Flowermaking was the profession of Nana, Emile Zola’s heroine, and Mimi, the title character of Giacomo Puccini’s opera “La Bohème”—as well as Marie Dupuis, who became one of Renoir’s favorite models.
Maison Camille Marchais was known for creating remarkably lifelike imitation flowers. The roses on the hats the firm exhibited at the Exposition Universelle of 1889 were so realistic “that a bee tried one,” a visitor observed. Customers could purchase artificial bouquets as well as flower-trimmed hats. “The extrachic... is to offer a mass of flowers from Camille Marchais,” the magazine La Grande revue reported in 1880. “The mass is stuffed with huge bunches of violets, gillyflowers, roses, daffodils... and at the base a clump of natural lily of the valley with one or two roses to complete the illusion; impossible to imagine anything more successful... because this bouquet is durable, whereas the bouquet from Nice is withered before it arrives.” So convincing was the illusion that the butler to a Russian princess allegedly ruined a bouquet Marchais had sent from Paris by plunging it into a vase of water.
Artificial flowers could transform the humble shepherdesses’ sunhat into a garment fit for a queen. Flat, flower-trimmed straw hats in the bergère (shepherdess) style evoked the rustic wardrobe Marie-Antoinette had adopted a century earlier for playing milkmaid in her model village, Le Hameau. Le Magasin des Demoiselles dubbed similar hats “chapeaux Trianon,” after Le Petit Trianon, the queen’s miniature palace in the gardens of Versailles. These historical revival styles were popular during the reign of Empress Eugénie, who was fascinated by Marie-Antoinette and frequently dressed as the martyred queen for court masquerades.
A very different type of straw hat was the boater, so named because it was originally worn by men for yachting and other summer sports. It began to appear on women during the 1880s, often paired with tailored ensembles inspired by menswear. In 1884, Maud Watson won the first women’s singles championship at Wimbledon wearing a boater, which lent a masculine touch to her corseted and bustled tennis ensemble. It was a rare example of a unisex hat style in the Impressionist era and quickly became associated with the active, independent “New Woman” who so fascinated Degas and his contemporaries. In 1894, when a bicycling craze swept France, fashionable sportswomen paired voluminous bloomers and with tiny boaters perched on the tops of their heads. By the 1890s, boaters could be seen on city streets, trimmed with artificial flowers.
Women’s hats grew in size along with fashionable hairstyles. The large, full coiffures of the early 1900s—often augmented by false hair—brought a corresponding inflation in hat size. Hats were worn perched atop these full coiffures, anchored by hatpins, which could be highly ornamental in their own right. A large bouquet of artificial flowers was one visual trick used to mask the gap between the smartly tilted hat and the hair.
While women’s hats were one-of-a-kind works of art created by modistes, men’s hats were typically made by male chapeliers (hatmakers) in a much more standardized style—a quality emphasized by Édouard Manet’s Masked Ball at the Opera. Despite their uniformity, however, hats were one of many essential male accessories that enlivened and complicated the comparatively limited palette, range of garments, and choice of textiles available to men in the late nineteenth century. The top hat (chapeau haute de forme) was a formal hat worn day and night throughout the nineteenth century. Originally made of beaver felt, by the 1850s it was covered in gleaming silk. Although the top hat underwent minor changes in shape over time as the size and curvature of the crown and brim evolved, its phallic silhouette remained a distinctive aspect of menswear.
Degas abandoned his millinery subjects in the mid-1880s, only to return to them in the late 1890s, when he shifted his focus from the milliner’s customers to the milliner herself. These works, which experimented with color and abstraction, were very personal, not for sale; at the time of his death in 1917, Degas had several millinery pastels and paintings in his studio. By this time, millinery itself was on its last legs. Widespread backlash against the plumage trade and the outbreak of World War I doomed the once-ubiquitous hat. It shrank and shed its ornamentation, finally disappearing from everyday life.
“Degas, Impressionism, and the Paris Millinery Trade” exhibits
at the Saint Louis Art Museum through May 7, 2017 and the Legion of Honor in San Francisco,
from June 24 to September 24, 2017.
Kimberly Chrisman-Campbell is an art historian specializing in fashion and textiles, and a frequent contributor to Ornament. She has worked as a curator, consultant and educator for museums and universities around the world. Chrisman-Campbell is the author of Fashion Victims: Dress at the Court of Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette. She contributed to the catalogue of the exhibition “Degas, Impressionism, and the Paris Millinery Trade,” currently showing at the Saint Louis Art Museum and then moving on to San Francisco’s Legion of Honor. Next up for Ornament is her article on Aileen Ribeiro.