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.

Woman’s hat

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.

Degas, Impressionism, and the Paris Millinery Trade, installation view

Edgar Degas, “The Millinery Shop” (1879/86), oil on canvas, 39 3/8 x 43 9/16 in.

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

James Tissot, “The Shop Girl” (1883–85), oil on canvas, 146.1 x 101.6 cm

The show opens with a section on the emerging consumer culture in 18th-century Paris, with department stores opening competing millinery shops on the Rue de la Paix, near where Degas worked. One of the paintings in this section, James Tissot’s “The Shop Girl” (1883–85), shows us the inside of a shop, with piles of ribbons on the counter and a woman at work standing at the open door.

Another section showcases hats covered in ribbons and flowers. At the time, about 24,000 women were creating silk flowers, leaves, and ferns to adorn hats. In the gallery hangs Degas’s largest painting on this theme, “The Millinery Shop” (1879), which shows a woman sitting at a table surrounded by six hats, and in the same room a late-19th-century bonnet embellished with ribbon, bows, and silk flowers looks as though it was plucked directly from the painting.

Madame Pouyanne, woman’s bonnet

The show goes on with plumed and feathered hats, including Camerlengo’s favorite, one of the nine from San Francisco’s collection: a bonnet with sprays of light and dark brown feathers made by Madame Pouyanne, who was known, per the show’s catalogue, for her “very artistic combination of colorings.” Paintings showing similar hats hang in the same gallery, including “Portrait of Madame J (Young Woman in Black)” (1883) by Cassatt, a close friend of Degas’s, whom he often accompanied to millinery shops. The painting shows a woman in a black hat with a veil and feathers; nearby hangs Degas’s “Woman Viewed from Behind (Visit to a Museum)” (1879–85), depicting a fashionable woman in a plumed hat looking at paintings in the Louvre.

Men’s hats are represented in this show as well, such as bowlers like the one in Degas’s “Portrait of Zacharian” (1885). Top hats, which had been ubiquitous in earlier years, were considered formal wear by the 1890s. Milliners used fur and silk in top hats and straw for boaters, like one in a painting by Berthe Morisot of her husband (and Manet’s brother), “Eugène Manet on the Isle of Wight” (1875).

In the exhibit’s final section, the focus is on hats from the early 20th century (which were getting bigger and bigger) and Degas’s late millinery works, including two paintings titled “The Milliners” (1882–1904 and 1898). In the earlier work, on loan from the J. Paul Getty Museum, two women sit at a table with hats and some ribbons in front of them, and we can see how hard the millinery work was (sometimes up to 20 hours a day in peak season) in the exhausted face of the woman on the left. The other painting, from the Saint Louis Art Museum, shows two women absorbed in their work.

Edgar Degas, “The Milliners” (1898), oil canvas, 29 5/8 x 32 1/4 in.

Edgar Degas, “The Milliners” (1882–1904), oil canvas, 29 5/8 x 32 1/4 in.

In these final paintings of the exhibit, we see most clearly Degas’s empathy and regard for the milliners. When he portrays them lost in thought, it’s clear he sees them as fellow artists, struggling to create the most beautiful, inventive, and elegant work they could — just as he did.

Degas, Impressionism, and the Paris Millinery Trade, installation view

Degas, Impressionism, and the Paris Millinery Trade continues at San Francisco’s Legion of Honor Museum (100 34th Avenue) through September 24.

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Emily Wilson

Emily Wilson is a radio and print reporter in San Francisco. She has written stories for dozens of media outlets including NPR, Latino USA, the San Francisco Chronicle, SF Weekly, California...