By Simon Kelly and Esther Bell

Prestel Publishing. 296 pages. £50. ISBN 978-3-7913-5621-1

Reviewed by Jim Burns

An early biographer of Pierre-August Renoir commented that he was fascinated by women’s hats, and would buy them regularly from various milliners: “He never came home empty-handed; he was a maniac, a sort of erotomaniac of women’s hats: toques, bonnets, felts, straws, various kinds of lace, flowers. He also delighted in multi-coloured fabrics”.  Someone else, talking about Edouard Manet, remarked: “The next day, it was the hats of a famous milliner, Madame Virot, that enthralled him……On his return to the rue d’Amsterdam, he could not stop talking about the splendour of the things he had seen at Madame Virot’s”.

As for Edgar Degas, he was clearly interested in millinery and the people who practised it, though coming from a thoroughly bourgeois background, with emotional reticence built in, he doesn’t seem to have displayed the kind of outward enthusiasm that others noted in relation to Renoir and Manet. It was hard to imagine Degas standing in front of a shop window, talking excitedly about what was on display. But he knew about hats and, as this splendid book makes clear, he pictured them in more than a few of the paintings and pastels he produced.

People have always worn hats, of one kind or another, and a quick tour of 18th century paintings by  artists such as Gainsborough, Romney, Fragonard, and Elisabeth Louise Vigée-LeBrun. will turn up numerous portraits of fashionable ladies wearing flamboyant headgear. But the 19th century appears to have spread the word beyond a selection of aristocrats and their followers. The rise of the bourgeoisie with money to spend, new methods of communication (magazines, newspapers, catalogues) which could disseminate information about the latest fashions, and advertising. They all combined to promote new markets for milliners: In Paris alone, “Around one thousand milliners created a rich and diverse array of hats, often covered with extravagant trimmings, such as silk flowers and ribbons, ostrich plumes, and even whole birds”.

The 19th century also saw the rise of department stores (see Zola’s novel, The Ladies Paradise), though most milliners operated from small shops. It’s interesting to note that artists like Degas, Renoir, and Manet do not seem to have taken much interest in department stores where mass-produced hats were sold at relatively low prices. They preferred to visit the smaller shops, where hats were individually designed and made for clients who could afford them. And there was an awareness among the painters that the people who made the hats were, in their own way, creative artists. Questions of colour relationships could be just as important for a hat as for a painting.

It’s relevant to note that very often the artists were living and working in close proximity to the milliners’ shops: “Over his lifetime Degas’s eight studios were all located in the Montmartre area: he regularly visited milliners’ shops on the rue de la Paix (although frustratingly their names are unknown to us today)”. It’s true that, on the whole, Degas and other artists, such as Renoir, Manet, Mary Cassatt, Toulouse-Lautrec, and Federico Zandomeneghi, mostly focused on what might be termed the “front of shop” aspect of millinery. There were few insights into the workrooms where hats were made and working conditions not necessarily ideal. One or two photographs do show how cramped they could be, with women crowded together at benches and piles of material scattered around the room. Milliners were considered among the elite workers in the garment trade, so it’s easy to imagine what life was like for those lower down the scale.

But can we really blame the artists for failing to focus on the lives of the workers, and largely concentrating instead on the people who wore the hats?: “This environment – at once familiar and artistic – during the years 1875-1890 – attracted many painters, who portrayed these young and elegant Parisian modistes as an expression of the reality of modern life that so fascinated them”. It was more than probable that a painting of an attractive and fashionably dressed woman would be likely to find a buyer than one of a badly-dressed and hungry worker.

It’s true that the modiste, perhaps seen delivering one of her creations to a client, might well have had a sideline in occasional prostitution. Her work was not well-paid, especially when compared to what the hats sold for, and selling her body might have been a necessity in hard times. There are a couple of reproductions of early prints which give a rather romanticised picture of modistes at their employment, and I suspect the reality was much darker. Of one of these prints, Pierre de La Mésangére’s Atelier de modistes, it is said that it codes the women as “both elegant ladies and erotic objects, both creative artisans and disorderly tarts”.

Later artists could sometimes hint at the weariness that would overcome women working long hours in less-than-perfect environments. One of Degas’s canvases, The Milliners, has a woman whose “apparent exhaustion” is obvious from her fixed stare and “greyish pallor”. Compare it to Louise Catherine Breslau’s pastel on paper. The Milliners, which has two tidily dressed women working on hats. They appear less tired than the woman in Degas’s painting, though the level of concentration they’re displaying, and their body postures, might well point to an eventual exhaustion.

The main intent of most painters was to show how women wore their hats at the theatre, on the street, and elsewhere in public: Hats were very much a status symbol, hence the permanent demand for new creations. Besides the paintings there are numerous illustrations of hats from the period concerned, and they give an idea of the styles available and the imaginative designs involved. They range from the relatively simple -  limited decoration on a hat could sometimes be as effective as a more ornate trimmings – to hats that probably had little obvious use beyond being worn for show at a recital, the opening of an exhibition, or a similar social gathering. It’s hard to see them being employed for more-mundane purposes. They just wouldn’t have been practical.

It might seem that women’s hats fascinated the artists most of all, and it’s obvious that the designs and the colours provided them with inspiration. Renoir’s paintings are awash with colourful representations of attractive young girls and women wearing gaily-decorated hats. And it’s not difficult to know why men’s hats got less attention. They just didn’t have the range (of design or colours) that women’s hats presented. Gone were the days when men wore hats with plumes. There’s a painting by Manet, Masked Ball at the Opera, and it’s amusing to see the row of black top hats which spreads from left to right across the canvas. Was Manet being satirical about bourgeois conformity?

The top hat was replaced to a degree by the bowler, invented in London in 1849 “as a sturdy riding hat for gamekeepers”, though it soon went into general use in both England and France. Degas’s painting, Standing Man in a Bowler Hat illustrates how it became a part of men’s general street wear, as does Toulouse-Lautrec’s portrait of Gaston Bonnefoy. Both paintings show how “By the 1890s top hats had been relegated to formal wear”. Men did also wear straw hats on occasion, and there’s a painting by Berthe Morisot entitled, Eugène Manet on the Isle of Wight, with him sporting a straw hat. Men in straw hats can also be seen in Renoir’s Le Moulin de la Galette. The settings, however, indicated leisure activities, so straw hats were appropriate.

It’s the women’s hats that inevitably capture the attention. Top hats and bowlers simply can’t compare with them. And it’s hard to accept that any sort of creative impulse lay behind designs for men’s hats. As mentioned earlier, the bowler came about because of a practical need for useful  head coverings for gamekeepers. There may have been some hats that men wore that broke away from the top hat or the bowler. There’s a self-portrait by Degas which shows him in a soft hat of some sort which was perhaps meant to indicate a bohemian inclination. It was done when Degas was young and the bohemian angle was relevant. It’s also said that Degas’s Portrait of Zacharian shows him wearing a “a bowler hat with upturned brim a hat that by the 1890s not only carried working-class associations but also conveyed bohemian status for artists and intellectuals”. Presumably it represented a way of separating oneself from the bourgeoisie and their top hats?

Not everyone thought the hundreds of milliners’ shops, and the department stores, were forces for the good. Shopping may, in some eyes, have been a way for women to assert their independence, but other people saw it as distracting them from their domestic responsibilities. They were “frivolous” and carried away with “uncontrollable desires” and “placed personal shopping satisfaction before family commitments”. A now-obscure novel, Histoire d’un agent de change, told the story of a woman who destroys her family because she is addicted to shopping.

It occurs to me to speculate on the taste for hats among working-class women in Paris. Obviously, when they could afford to buy them it would be from a department store or from milliners’ shops in the poorer districts of the city. Prices would be lower and the goods of a lesser quality. And the designs, though perhaps essentially copied from the hats on sale in high-class shops, would not be as inventive. Still, a nice-looking hat would probably be cherished by a working-class woman who was able to purchase one, though moralists would no doubt have condemned her for spending money on such an item. Some paintings do show other women besides the society ones favoured by many artists. The woman in the famous painting by Degas, L’Absinthe, looks drab and defeated, but is noticeably wearing a hat, though it’s difficult to tell what condition it’s in.

Although Degas is a key figure in this book it’s sometimes another artist who perhaps captures the mood of the moment, even if the painting is less well-regarded than those by Degas. There is a work by Jean Béraud, Fashionable Woman on the Champs Élysées, that might be seen as a typical, if sentimentalised, version of Parisian street life during the Belle Epoque. The woman is carrying a couple of hatboxes, which suggests she’s either a customer who has been shopping, or alternatively a modiste who is delivering hats. She’s hitching up her skirt at one side and revealing her white petticoat. And there’s a smile on her face that could indicate that she’s recognised someone, or alternatively that she’s aware that a top-hatted man behind her is looking at her questioningly. Dare he approach her, or not? Some observers might think that it’s a painting now best-suited to a calendar, or a picture-book about life in Paris, but it tells a story that might have a basis in reality. Or did it just help to create a myth about fashionability and elegance? And sex?

Another Beraud painting, Paris, rue du Havre, also presents a view of street life, and again a woman in the foreground is carrying hat boxes and lifting her skirt at one side. It did strike me that there is a practical reason for this, and it’s that she’s ensuring that the skirt isn’t likely to trail on the wet ground. Both paintings give the impression that there has recently been rain.

There’s an anecdote about Beraud and Degas, who “once likened his contemporary’s paintings to the art of accompanying his fashionable friend, the salonnière Geneviève Straus on a shopping trip: `Like a Beraud, I attended the fitting of a most impressive dress’ “. What precisely did Degas mean? Was he being complimentary about the accuracy of Beraud’s canvases, or possibly a little more cryptic and suggesting that they were as dull as a dress-fitting might be for an onlooker?

Degas, Impressionism, and the Paris Millinery Trade is such a stimulating book that I could happily carry on looking at individual paintings and drawing conclusions from them. One of its intentions is to focus attention on Degas’s millinery works which, the editors contend, are often overlooked in favour of his studies of ballet dancers and racehorses, but are as important: “Millinery represents a central element of Degas’s broader artistic project of the exploration of Parisian modern life”. 

It will appeal to enthusiasts for his work generally for that reason. It will also appeal to those who find the subject of the Belle Époque and the artists associated with it of interest. And it will, no doubt, fascinate anyone curious about changing fashions in hats. It is intelligently written, beautifully illustrated, and extensively documented. It should be noted that it was published for the exhibition, Degas, Paris, and the Paris Millinery Trade, at the Saint Louis Art Museum (February 12th to May 7th, 2017) and the Legion of Honour, San Francisco (June 24th to September 24th, 2017).