Degas’ and the Impressionists’ love of hats

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SAN FRANCISCO BAY AREA—It’s always interesting when an art show has an unusual theme, and “Degas, Impressionism, and the Millinery Trade” at the Legion of Honor Museum in San Francisco is drawing people eager to see artworks and hats from a period spanning the late 1800s to the turn of the century.

The day I saw the exhibit, among the visitors was a group of women dressed in ‘40s and ‘50s retro. They wore hats and wide and voluminous skirts reminiscent of Dior’s post-war “New Look” style. They’d come to gaze and be gazed at themselves as tangible manifestations of the days when one had to wear a hat when going outdoors.

The hats on display ranged widely in design and purpose. Tiny bonnets meant to perch on top of the head dangled long ribbons for tying under the chin. On the front of a toque was pinned a taxidermied African starling with gorgeous peacock-blue feathers. A wide-brimmed straw hat was festooned with lovely pink silk roses and a pale blue bow. Clearly some hats were decorative while others were more functional.

Today, such hats seem inconvenient and useless affectations. But they were once essential to one’s wardrobe and conveyed prestige and status as designer handbags do now.

As the Impressionists and Degas veered from the historical themes popular during the time and became interested in portraying daily life, hats were included in their works because they were worn by everyone.

Degas’ pastel portraits of friends Zacharie Zacharian and Henri Rouart show them wearing bowlers, the chapeau of choice of the intelligentsia and worn by Jose Rizal and other ilustrados in Europe before the Revolution.

Another Degas portrait depicts his fellow artist Mary Cassatt wearing a mannish triangular hat. Berthe Morisot’s “Eugene Manet on the Isle of Wight” (1875) portrays her husband wearing a straw boater and looking out the window at a woman and young girl, both also wearing hats.

Degas, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, and some of their other contemporaries were also, according to one of the museum captions, interested in the “materiality of hats”—their ribbons, trimmings, and artificial flowers. Degas, says his friend Paul Gauguin, “dared go into ecstasies in front of milliner’s shops,” while Renoir was described as being “obsessed” with hats, and on at least one occasion designed a hat himself. They considered millinery an art form. 

Tellingly, these artists also depicted the milliners themselves. Some are shown weary and haggard, as in Degas’s “The Milliners” (ca. 1882 to before 1905), perhaps after a night shift, or even ill from “Mad Hatter’s disease,” mercury poisoning (the chemical was used in curing felt).

The exhibit’s centerpiece, Degas’s “The Millinery Shop” (ca. 1879 to 1886), shows a milliner— “modiste”—sitting on a chair, working on a peach hat, a pin between her lips, more hats on a table beside her.

Also portrayed in these artworks was the hierarchy in that particular industry—from the “premiere” (designer) and her “seconde” to the “petit mains” (“small hands”—the workers) and “trottins” (apprentices who delivered hats to customers).

Jean Beraud’s “Paris, rue du Havre” (1882) depicts what is likely a trottin walking along a boulevard with hatboxes in hand. James Tissot’s “The Shop Girl” (ca. 1883 to 1885) portrays the interior of a milliner’s, with a girl holding the door open while gazing straight at the viewer, the “customer.”

These works bring to mind Juan Luna’s oils “Lady at the Racetrack” (ca. 1880s) which shows a woman wearing a black or midnight blue straw hat at a racecourse in Madrid, and “The Parisian Life” (1892), depicting a woman in a dark-colored bonnet in a café, three men seated at a nearby table. These works from the same time frame would not have looked amiss at the Legion of Honor’s exhibit.

“Degas, Impressionism, and the Millinery Trade” is a fascinating look at a facet of Belle Epoque culture. The hats and artworks are not only artifacts of visual and applied art, beautiful and worthy in themselves, but they also serve as documentation.

As such, they help us visualize and understand the period’s norms and conventions that governed one’s personal appearance and acted as indicators of social identity. They remind us how much we are creatures of our time and place.

Dr. Ortuoste is a California-based writer. Follow her on Facebook: Jenny Ortuoste, Twitter: @jennyortuoste, Instagram: @jensdecember, @artuoste

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