Degas and the Paris Millinery Trade Volume 39.4

 
An inveterate window-shopper, 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.
SELF-PORTRAIT IN A SOFT HAT   by Edgar Degas, oil on paper, mounted on canvas, 26.0 x 19.1 centimeters, 1857.  Courtesy of Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute.

SELF-PORTRAIT IN A SOFT HAT by Edgar Degas, oil on paper, mounted on canvas, 26.0 x 19.1 centimeters, 1857. Courtesy of Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute.

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.

PARIS, RUE DU HAVRE by Jean Béraud, oil on canvas, 35.2 × 27.3 centimeters, 1882. Courtesy of National Gallery of Art, Washington.

      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.’ ”

THE SHOP GIRL by James Tissot, oil on canvas, 146.05 x 101.6 centimeters, 1883-1885. Courtesy of Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto.

      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.

MME GEORGETTE: WOMAN’S HAT of black lace and artificial flowers on wire frame, 50.8 x 29.8 centimeters, circa 1910. Courtesy of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. WOMAN’S HAT of straw with ostrich feathers, silk lace and artificial flowers, 24.1 x 48.3 x 41.3 centimeters, circa 1910. Courtesy of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. MAISON VIROT: WOMAN’S HAT of plaited straw over wire frame, silk velvet and maline, silk roses, leaves, and ferns, with alterations, 39.4 x 38.1 centimeters, circa 1900. Courtesy of Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco. WOMAN’S HAT of silk faille, velvet, cord, jet beads, and African starling, 10.2 centimeters crown height, 21.0 x 22.9 centimeters overall, circa 1890. Courtesy of Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco.

      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.

THE MILLINERY SHOP by Edgar Degas, oil on canvas, 100.0 x 110.7 centimeters, 1879-1886. Courtesy of the Art Institute of Chicago.

      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.

YOUNG GIRL ON THE GRASS by Berthe Morisot, oil canvas, 74 x 60 centimeters, 1885. Courtesy of Ordrupgaard Museum.

      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. 

MASKED BALL AT THE OPERA by Édouard Manet, oil on canvas, 59.1 x 72.5 centimeters, 1873. Courtesy of National Gallery of Art, Washington.

“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.

Andrea Geer Volume 39.4

KNIT TUNIC WITH SCARF of merino wool/rayon blend yarn; scarf is knit and leather, handloomed, 2015.  Background:  ACRYLIC PAINTING on stretched canvas, 91.4 x 183 centimeters, 2016.  Photograph by Tim Fuss.

KNIT TUNIC WITH SCARF of merino wool/rayon blend yarn; scarf is knit and leather, handloomed, 2015. Background: ACRYLIC PAINTING on stretched canvas, 91.4 x 183 centimeters, 2016. Photograph by Tim Fuss.

Art is a mirror to life. It takes all the visual humdrum of reality, and adds in the emotional tones (over and under), the sounds, the smells, the memories, the thoughts, and the imaginings that compose our complicated and at times remarkably simple existence. What comes out is a refracted prism, a carnival reflection that represents our state of being better than the “real” world itself.

      It is in that service Andrea Geer dedicates herself, working through processes within processes to turn the ideas that dwell inside into physical objects. From knitwear to digitally-printed fabric and leather cut and sewn into garments, Geer manages a balance between her repertoire of skills and tools, and her capacity to bring forth her thoughts as coherent and functional wearables.

Her background in the arts comes from learning on her own and the structure provided by her fine arts education, showing how important the tension intertwining different realms of experience is to the creative process. Geer earned a BFA in graphics design at the Rochester Institute of Technology, as well as an MFA in painting. The latter deeply informed her ability to see things from a big picture perspective. Rather than viewing clothing purely as an object, she learned to see it abstractly, conceptually as an empowering vehicle that could change how the wearer is perceived, and perceives themselves. This is the guiding principle behind Geer’s designs. How that transformation happens, from a drab covering to becoming an article of power, beauty and grace is a process involving numerous steps and a variety of techniques and disciplines.

“As I have moved forward in my life, I have collected many tools and materials that have aided me in creating,” she explains. “I have ultimately moved in a direction that did not require me to focus on one tool or set of tools.” This multimedia approach has led to Geer embracing everything from sewing machines and paintbrushes to scissors, digital styluses and Photoshop. While learning how to utilize a new material or piece of equipment takes time, listening to her speak reveals an open mind that is continually searching for the best avenue for expressing an idea.

In the past few years, Geer has taken her interest in painting and made use of the miracle of digital printing to produce textiles which feature her own fine art. A chance encounter at a New York City fabric show introduced her to a small company that was able to print on leather, and more important, willing to do small batch orders. It was a marvelous serendipity, and Geer leapt at the chance to incorporate her two-dimensional art into a wearable form. With careful meticulosity, she describes, “I started by having paintings I had previously created printed on to the leather. The paintings were large, around three-and-a-half by six feet. Then, I began to create the artwork to the size of the fabric. I created new large paintings that were close to the width of the fabric.”

 

SWEATER AND SKIRT of merino wool/rayon; sweater is handloomed, skirt is ponte knit and hand manipulated, 2014. DIGITALLY PRINTED TOP of polyester crepe de chine, 2016. DIGITALLY PRINTED LEATHER SKIRT with removable panel, 2016. Model: Allison Ridgley. Photographs by Tom McInvaille except where noted.

      Eventually, she began incorporating digital art into her repertoire. A Wacom tablet, essentially a canvas, brush and palette all rolled into one, is the first tool employed in this alchemy. By using the tablet’s stylus, she can paint, pen or sketch a digital file that can then be printed on various fabrics. As she reminisces about her childhood, a deeper thread is exposed. “The most direct route to expressing an idea visually was with a pencil. Typically, now when I use a pencil, it is to quickly record an idea for future use or to map out an idea that is important to my work. The pencil in time became a tool that records something that will be executed in a different medium.

ANDREA GEER.  Photograph by Tim Fuss.

ANDREA GEER. Photograph by Tim Fuss.

      “I remember the awe and love of a process that allowed me to create. It was with a sense of wonder and excitement that I first drew as a child. The stylus is an electronic pencil that allows you to draw on a Wacom tablet. The tablet allows you to draw directly onto a surface. The drawing takes place in Photoshop where you can manipulate the type of line, the texture, the color, and many other things. The stylus has become what the pencil once was. The most direct way to communicate my ideas.”

Once she receives the printed textiles, spontaneity and a willingness to be flexible helps guide the process from taking a piece of cloth and transforming it into clothing. A look is arrived at by visualizing how the fabric will best flatter the body, with a particular cut and drape determining how the garment will fall and tuck on the wearer. Then a pattern is devised. Every step of the way, Geer is willing to consider new possibilities, particularly being attentive to when it is necessary to let go of an old idea in order to move in a fresh direction.

This simple truth grows from the unmitigated, primal spirit which lies within, that initial spark which grows into a flame as it is fed and nourished. All it needs is an outlet, a tool that releases that energy into something that transcends the metaphysical into the physical. For Geer, that was the pencil.

DIGITALLY PRINTED CAPE in polyester crepe de chine, 2016.  Background:  WHITE GRAY LINEAR PATTERN digital artwork created using Wacom tablet, 2017.

DIGITALLY PRINTED CAPE in polyester crepe de chine, 2016. Background: WHITE GRAY LINEAR PATTERN digital artwork created using Wacom
tablet, 2017.

      This sense of wonder in creating is the essence of Geer’s work. It is the exploration of mystery, the charting of unknown territory, the grand adventure which uncovers surprising new ground. “I certainly don’t feel bound to one way of creating clothing,” she explains. “The spontaneity along each step is important to the process. Often, I order the fabric not knowing what I will make from it. In the case of the leather skirts, the leather arrived and I knew right away after seeing it that it had to be a skirt.”

The delight of Geer’s clothing is earthed in its spontaneity and playfulness. The basis of her knitwear is creating wearable sculpture, with the key word being wearable. Lightweight, unencumbered, yet as dynamic as she can push it, each piece seeks to redefine the shape of the body, either with circles, squares and other geometric shapes, or by creating voluminous pantaloons that stretch from breast to ankle. Striated with black and white ribbing, and running down the outside of each leg, this particular piece is a redefining of the outer garment, although a particularly daring individual could likely find a combination of clothes to make it part of one’s foundational ensemble.

In a very different manner, Geer’s skirts and t-shirts featuring her digital prints push boundaries by breaking up the standard assumption that casually worn clothing must be either in a single, flat color, or adorned with a recognizable pattern. Abstract paintings leave the wearer awash in gradients, broad, thick brushstrokes, and interposed panels of geometric shapes. Asymmetry is the name of the game here, with colors and black lines channeling the attention of the viewer so either your eye is constantly in motion, or specific highlights cause your gaze to become arrested by a spot of intrigue.

Geer ran a storefront in Rochester, New York, for two years before she decided it was not having a beneficial impact on her imagination. She has since transformed it into a showroom and workspace, where she can talk with customers and demonstrate the stages the fabric goes through before it becomes clothing. “I think people of all ages are interested in process and sharing the actual work is a key step in enticing new younger customers as well as previous buyers,” Geer remarks. “I think people are happy to know that it is not a magical process but a series of steps.”

What lies at the heart of Geer’s work is the act of letting go, of having that space to try new things and revel in the excitement of that outcome. “Sometimes the process of experimentation feels effortless because I am not always trying to get to an end result, I just want to see how things might go together. There are so many moments of uncertainty in working this way, but behind this uncertainty lies a feeling that is exactly the opposite. It’s a feeling of conviction and trust.”

 
GEER’S STUDIO in Rochester, New York.  Photograph by Kyle Schwab. DRESS of hand-manipulated folds of merino wool/rayon blend yarn, 2014.

GEER’S STUDIO in Rochester, New York. Photograph by Kyle Schwab.DRESS of hand-manipulated folds of merino wool/rayon blend yarn, 2014.

 
 

     Get Inspired!


Patrick R. Benesh-Liu is Associate Editor of Ornament and continues to find time to enjoy craft in between writing, travel and tech support. For his contribution to the latest issue, Benesh-Liu explores the art to wear of Andrea Geer, whom he met last November at the Philadelphia Museum of Art Craft Show. After talking with Geer about her creative process through a series of emails, he found a multimedia artisan whose holistic approach puts together digital and traditional handwork. As Ornament’s reporter, he also provides a zesty compilation of the latest news in craft, where you can find out what is happening with art to wear in the global neighborhood.

Glitterati Volume 39.2

Glitterati
Portraits and Jewelry From Colonial Latin America

TIARA of gilt silver, emeralds, pearls, Colombia or Ecuador, circa 1690. 

Despite its titular implications of spectacle and vanity parade, the Denver Art Museum’s exhibition “Glitterati: Portraits & Jewelry from Colonial Latin America” offers an unexpectedly intimate and contemplative experience of some important pieces from the institution’s core holdings. The general scarcity of Spanish sixteenth- to early nineteenth-century jewelry with documented or even plausible New World provenance precludes the kind of overwhelming display that can be found just one room over, where the museum’s collection of colonial silver hollowware dazzles the eye through sheer expanse of gleaming surfaces. Moreover, the exhibition’s curators Donna Pierce and Julie Wilson Frick seem to have deliberately cultivated an effect of dignified reserve. Surrounded by deep red walls and guarded by somber portraits enveloped in baroque gloom, even the most bejeweled objects in the exhibition appear as small, bright accents rather than aggressive contenders for the spotlight. This is entirely appropriate. The portraits, selected because of their in-situ depictions of jewelry, suggest that Spanish fashion of the colonial period, even in its farthest forays into ornamentation, conveyed a somber strength that restrained the impulse to excess and resisted the frivolity that at times thrived in the salons of Europe. Even in the colonies, the subdued aesthetic of Velazquez and Murillo seems to have been more reflective of Spanish taste than the exuberance of Rubens or the delicacy of Watteau.

      Pearls figured prominently in the jewelry of wealthy colonial women, though given the high rate at which bracelets, necklaces and pendants were later cannibalized in the interest of keeping up with mercurial fashion, it is not surprising that only three pieces among the jewelry displayed in the exhibition actually contain pearls. The portraits serve as more accurate indicators of historical practice. A painting of Doña Maria del Carmen Cortés Santelices y Cartavio Roldán, the creole wife of a Spanish-born judge in Trujillo, Peru, depicts the blue-eyed eighteenth-century matron adorned with earrings of gold-framed mother-of-pearl disks with triple pearl drops, pearl bracelets of four strands on each wrist, and a silver foliate cross suspended from a three-strand pearl necklace. From a century later, a staid three-quarter-view portrait of an unknown elderly Colombian woman, whose presumably thin gray hair is entirely hidden by a close-fitting black cap, features a single gold and large pearl drop earring as sufficient proof of her wealth and social status.

 

To Read The Complete Article

 
 

Glen R. Brown, a professor of art history at Kansas State University and a frequent writer on jewelry and metalwork, has a longstanding interest in the decorative arts of Latin America. The Denver Art Museum’s exhibition “Glitterati: Portraits & Jewelry from Colonial Latin America” provided a rare opportunity to study some particularly fine surviving examples of seventeenth- to nineteenth-century work in gold and silver, but he was most impressed by the juxtaposition of jewelry and its representation in period paintings: “what may be the best way to look at historical objects and remember why they were made.”