The Passion for Hats:
Hats and bonnets (the latter differing only in that they were tied under the chin with ribbons) were an essential element of women’s attire in the second half of the nineteenth century, worn not only in city streets, parks, and other public spaces, but also in the country, in the garden, or on the beach, in part to protect the wearer from excessive exposure to the sun. Men almost always wore hats outdoors as well. The Impressionists who worked as portraitists and genre painters—notably Degas and Manet, in addition to Renoir—thus showed people of all ages and both sexes wearing hats. Complex and colorful, women’s hats were often made to complement their elaborate fashions, and styles changed with the seasons. The hats were made in a wide variety of materials and were decorated with quantities of expensive materials: beads, ribbon, lace, feathers, and especially artificial flowers.
Paris, center of fashion, was also the center of the hat business. There were said to be 1,000 milliners in Paris in the Impressionist era. Paintings and pastels by Degas (The Met, 22.27.3
), and, in this case, Renoir, document the roles that had developed by and for women in the millinery trade. This was a profession in which women were owners and managers of shops, several of whom achieved a degree of celebrity designing, making, and marketing hats. The “modiste” was a dressmaker or milliner. A sub-specialty was the “fleuriste,” who created and supplied artificial flowers. Both were specialized skills requiring extensive on-the-job training, and apprenticeships might last as many as seven or eight years. The “modiste” was assisted by “trottins” or “trotteuses,” who were learning the trade, and who also delivered merchandise to customers. During their training, which might begin for girls as young as thirteen or fourteen, the work was strenuous and rarely paid enough to live on; some of them may have supplemented an inadequate income with prostitution.The Pastel:
Renoir depicted a young woman standing before a millinery shop, its large plateglass window seen on the diagonal, where several elaborately embellished hats are displayed on tall stands. Slender, and with dark hair, she is soberly dressed in black with a white collar and cuffs, appropriate for an assistant. She also wears artificial flowers—a small corsage and a single blossom in her hair—and holds an unmarked box that must contain a patron’s hat. Daulte, author of the first volume of the Renoir catalogue raisonné, dates the pastel 1877 and illustrates a related drawing (no. 747) in pencil and charcoal of the same smiling individual in full-length, in a similar costume and carrying a hatbox. Perhaps Renoir had seen such a girl in the street, looking pleased to escape supervision to make a delivery. In fact, at that time, a young, unaccompanied female walking in the street (hatless, a statement of class) might have attracted unwanted male overtures, placing herself at risk.
A smaller, unfinished oil sketch by Renoir (Harvard Art Museums, Cambridge, Mass., 1934.31) is thought to date to the following year and may offer a more realistic look at the life of several young apprentices crowded together in the workroom of such a shop. All are dressed neatly in black and white. Two of the three, looking melancholy and exhausted, are seated with their materials—here, the black wings of a dismembered bird—displayed on a cloth-covered table. (There were not yet standards to protect birds and other forms of wildlife from the ravages of commerce.) Later, Renoir would make a specialty of pictures of young women or girls of the upper middle class, alone or in pairs, shown close up while trying on, wearing (The Met, 64.150
), or occasionally decorating hats.
Katharine Baetjer 2021