Degas And His Fascination With 19th-Century Hat Culture

Degas, Impressionism, and the Paris Millinery Trade, installation view (all images courtesy the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco)

SAN FRANCISCO — It’s hard for a major museum exhibition to surprise us, so the fact that San Francisco’s Legion of Honor Museum does is one of the many pleasures of Degas, Impressionism, and the Paris Millinery Trade. The museum, which recently presented something fresh about Claude Monet with an exhibition showing the evolution of his style, now has something new to show us about Edgar Degas.

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Best known for his paintings of dancers, Degas was also fascinated by the women in the millinery trade. This show, organized by the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco and the Saint Louis Art Museum, is the first to detail this fascination through the paintings and pastels of Degas as well as fellow Impressionists like Mary Cassatt, Édouard Manet, and Pierre-Auguste Renoir. Along with paintings, the exhibit showcases period hats and bonnets embellished with silk flowers, ribbons, plumes, and feathers. Occasionally, a whole bird— an African starling, even an owl — sits atop a hat.

Along with showing us beautiful hats and paintings of the women who made them, the show also tells us something about the historical context of their work. One million women joined the workforce in France in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, and many of them — about 80 percent — went into the fashion industry. At the time, men and women, regardless of social class, did not go out in public without a hat, and Paris, considered the fashion capital of the world, had approximately 1,000 millinery shops. The milliners were the elite workers in the garment industry, and their jobs ranged from running errands to forming the hats to covering them with material to adding trimmings. Then there were the premières, or creative directors, who designed the hats, often with input from their clients. A few of these premières, such as Madame Virot, became millionaires. Looking at the hats in this exhibit, with their style, elegance, form, and attention to detail — such as a red and black bonnet with tiny berries or a pink and brown wool hat with velvet and ribbons — it’s easy to see why Degas considered milliners his fellow artists.

That’s the thesis of the show, Laura Camerlengo, a curator of costume and textile arts at the museum, told Hyperallergic: that milliners were artists working with straw, wool, feathers, and silk rather than paint. She thinks that showing hats and bonnets alongside the paintings helps the show come alive.

According to Camerlengo, people at the time didn’t yet know what to make of working women, and their freedom was both admired and considered threatening. Social classes came together in the millinery shops, with wealthy women spending up to 200 francs for a hat while an errand girl in the shop made maybe two francs a day

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