Hats off to Degas and the millinery trade

The TOP HATS of Paris aren’t just the ones worn by men; they include the bonnets women wear as well. Rita Braver has a survey of classic headwear that’s perfectly timed for this day: 

Bing Crosby may have sung about Easter Bonnets in the 1942 Film “Holiday Inn.” But Edgar Degas PAINTED them. “Degas is probably best known for his dancer scenes, to some extent his racetrack works,” said curator Simon Kelly. “But there’s never been an exhibition before on the theme of millinery, so this is the first exhibition to do that.”

Kelly co-curated the exhibit, “Degas, Impressionism, and the Paris Millinery Trade,” now on view at the St. Louis Art Museum (and headed to San Francisco in June), which features about 115 works.


Curator Simon Kelly and correspondent Rita Braver with Degas’ “The Millinery Shop” (1879-1886).

CBS News

He says that Degas, born in 1834 and considered a leading Impressionist, came from a wealthy Parisian background. His father was a banker; his mother, from a prominent New Orleans family, had an interest in fashion.

Degas, he said, was fascinated by modern Parisian life, and milliners (of whom there were about a thousand in Paris in 1900) were a central part of that. 


“Chez la Modiste” (c. 1905-1910) by Edgar Degas. 

Herve Lewandowski, Musée d'Orsay/© RMN-Grand Palais/Art Resource, N.Y.

And so Degas made frequent trips to observe the women who shopped and worked in the hat-making district near his Montmartre studio.

The exhibit offers not only homages to hats, but the actual hats as well. “We did want to make some connections between the hats themselves and the paintings,” Kelly said.

The parallels are unmistakable. And as the exhibit shows, Degas was not the only Impressionist painter to be intrigued by hats, both women’s and men’s. There are works by his friends and contemporaries, including Édouard Manet, Berthe Morisot, and Pierre-Auguste Renoir.

Shannon Meyer, senior curator of the Missouri History Museum, says that hats tell us a lot about turn-of-the-century history, not only in Paris, but also here in the States as well, where Paris styles were often copied.

“This was a time of growing wealth,” Myer said. “There was an emerging middle class. The hats were just kind of the icing on the cake of your outfit, and so that was just a great way to show off how much money you had.”

Braver asked, “When did you wear a hat? Did you just wear a hat to church in that time?”

“Oh, absolutely not. If you went outdoors, you were wearing a hat.”

And, she says, the painters were in a sense taking their hats off to the great milliners of the era:


Woman’s Hat, c. 1910, by Madame Georgette. Black silk lace, cotton flowers and leaves on a wire frame.

Tim Tiebout/Philadelphia Museum of Art

“Decorating a hat was actually an art form,” said Myers. “You had to have a certain level of taste and decorum in order to create this beautiful thing and know how to work with fabrics and materials to make something beautiful. And artists appreciate other artists.”

Degas died in 1917. A hundred years later, of course, hats have largely gone out of fashion.

“Our entire lifestyle has changed,” Myer said. “We are more mobile. We travel a lot more. It’s hard to travel with hats. And then as well, with the sexual revolution and women’s liberation movement, women didn’t want to be confined. So with all of these changes it just kind of fell by the wayside.”

But at least once a year, on this special day, it’s fun to break out the old chapeau.

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