In the first of these two articles looking at both sides of the fashion trade in the late nineteenth century, I focussed on the legion of women who earned a pittance making expensive dresses and other garments, as seamstresses or dressmakers. This article looks at milliners, whose job to trim and sell hats usually brought them into direct contact with their customers. The English word milliner comes from that for an inhabitant of Milan, one of the former centres of the hat trade in Europe.
Renoir’s oil sketch Chez la modiste (At the Milliner’s) from 1878 shows a couple of young and fashionable women selecting their hats, a theme taken up by Degas at about the same time.
Degas used the selection of hats in The Millinery Shop (1879/86) to experiment with unusual views and cropping, and as one aspect of his enduring theme of the modern woman. While husbands and partners were expected to pay for a woman’s hats, their choice was hers, and hers alone.
Around this fashionably-dressed Milliner on the Champs Elysées, Jean Béraud has carefully balanced painterly background foliage and sky, and the atmospheric detail of distant carriages. His Milliner on the Pont des Arts from 1879-82 (below) shows the same model drawing admiring looks on a windy day by the River Seine, this time clutching no less than three hatboxes.
In 1882, the year before her untimely death, Eva Gonzalès painted this Spanish Woman (Portrait of the Milliner) in pastels.
Les Modistes (Two Milliners in the Rue du Caire, Paris) from 1885-86 shows Paul Signac’s style just as he was making the transition to Seurat’s Divisionism. These two young milliners are busy making fashionable hats. His brushstrokes have shortened, but not yet become the dots characteristic of Pointillism. This is the first of his series of interiors showing bourgeois life.
Anders Zorn’s major project for the winter of 1891-92 was a painting that appears deceptively spontaneous, Omnibus. Earlier in 1891, he had seen a colour print by Mary Cassatt of two women and a child sitting in an otherwise deserted omnibus, and it’s perhaps that which set him planning this complex composition. It takes advantage of a relatively novel and increasingly popular feature of public transport in cities like Paris. In its confines he crams five figures, including himself (wearing the top hat, second from right).
The pretty young woman in the centre of his canvas is a milliner’s shop-girl, with her hand resting on a large hatbox. She is echoed, almost in reflection, by another young woman, and between her and the artist is a young working man – together a cosmopolitan mixture of people and classes.
Pierre-Georges Jeanniot’s At the Milliner (1901) contrasts with those of Degas in its relative detail, and Jeanniot’s use of mirror play to show the milliner herself, at the right.
Pierre Bonnard’s The Milliner, painted in 1907, features the distinctive chignon of his model Anita Champagne. The hat she has brought with her is laid carefully on a chair beside her.
How different was the world and work of a seamstress from those of a milliner.