(Fig. 1) Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (French, 1864–1901), The Milliner, Renée Vert, 1893, Lithograph in two colors, Image: 18 3/4 x 11 3/4 inches (47.63 x 29.85 cm), Sheet: 21 1/2 x 13 3/4 inches (54.61 x 34.93 cm), Gift of Mrs. Leonard Charles Kline, F86-33
“[The hat] is the dress’s crowning glory, the final touch.”Arsène Alexandre, art critic and fashion writer, 1902
Imagine a time and a place where you weren’t properly dressed unless you were wearing a hat. In late 1800s Paris, hats were an essential item of clothing, and milliners, or hatmakers and sellers, became a crucial professional class, immortalized by painters such as Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (French, 1864–1901), Edgar Degas (French, 1834–1917), and Mary Cassatt (American, (1844–1926). Millinery shops were popular places for commerce and social interaction. Wealthy women and men from both sides of the Atlantic purchased hats of all sizes and shapes, supporting an emerging luxury industry.
Milliners employed thousands of women, from shop owners to errand girls, with hat-form makers and trimmers occupying positions in between. Milliners, particularly the premières, or shop owners, were the highest paid workers in the Parisian garment district. Renée Vert, a well-known Parisian shopkeeper, was one such example. She opened her shop at 56 Rue du Faubourg in Saint-Honoré in the affluent 8th arrondissement. A print from 1893 by Toulouse-Lautrec shows Madame Vert examining one of her luxurious creations, deemed by many to be sculptural masterpieces, with prices ranging from a hundred to several hundred francs. (Fig. 1)
For Degas, milliners were the elite of Parisian workwomen, both elegant and distinguished, at all levels of their trade. The Nelson-Atkins boasts an exquisite pastel of junior milliners, or petites modistes, in one of the artist’s originally designed frames. (Fig. 2) Apprentices as young as 13 years old entered the millinery trade and might not achieve the rank of lead trimmer until they were 22. These junior milliners were somewhere in between those stages.
Mary Cassatt loved hats and frequently featured stylish women and children wearing the latest trends. In a pastel of a young girl, likely a model from the village near the artist’s home in Oise, outside of Paris, her oversized hat takes center stage. (Fig. 3) The subject’s soft velvet blue dress contrasts with her sharply creased and starched bonnet with sketchy strokes on its crown to indicate the presence of a feather.
The materials used in decorating hats were often exotic and luxurious. These included velvet and satin ribbons, silk flowers, feathers, and even entire stuffed birds, such as Baltimore orioles, blue jays, hummingbirds, owl heads, sparrow wings, warblers, and even prairie hens! The popularity of hats trimmed with these types of materials decimated certain bird populations, sparking outrage and leading to protective measures to stop bird slaughters. Ostrich feathers were among the most exclusive items in the millinery hatbox, and a dyed green profusion of them can be found atop a bright green hat worn by a young woman in a colored lithograph by French artist Henri-Jacques-Édouard Evenepoel. (Fig. 4) A single, high-quality ostrich feather could sell for up to twenty-three francs, the equivalent of one week’s wages for a manual worker in Paris.
Men’s hats were made from more practical materials. Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec captured the gleaming silk of this chapeau haut-de-forme, or top hat, in a watercolor over black chalk drawing. (Fig. 5) Worn day or night by aristocrats, businessmen, and men of leisure, top hats were made of beaver fur until the 1850s. However, silk replaced beaver fur due to its relative ease in manufacturing. Unlike women’s hats, which were an art form created by female modistes, men’s hats were made by male chapeliers in a more standardized way.
In late 1800s Paris, hats were an essential item of clothing, and milliners became a crucial professional class. Through the art of painters such as Toulouse-Lautrec, Degas, and Cassatt, we see the influence and importance of hats and the millinery industry in the development of the city’s culture and society, becoming “the dress’s crowning glory, [and] the final touch.”
Organized by The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Crowning Glory: Millinery in Paris, 1880–1905, is free, and on view through Dec. 3, 2023, in the Bloch Impressionist galleries.
–Aimee Marcereau DeGalan, Louis L. and Adelaide C. Ward Senior Curator, European Arts