Edgar Degas was interested in all forms of modern display, including fashion. In many drawings, pastels, prints, and paintings, he studied the construction and social significance of women’s clothing. In particular, hats—which were very fanciful during the late nineteenth century—allowed the artist to indulge in rich colors and experiment with a range of textures. Here, we see a still-life arrangement of hats in various stages of completion. Behind the hats sits a young milliner, her mouth pursed around a pin as she shapes her next creation. Degas matched the level of painterly detail to the degree of finish in the hats themselves: the central, completed hat, adorned with a green ribbon and displayed on a tall stand, appears three dimensional and richly textured; while the unfinished form in the girl’s hand is flat and monochromatic, and reveals the artist’s repeated scraping and repainting.
Without a doubt, Degas considered this young woman’s concentrated activity to be artistic in nature. Furthermore, he realized that her occupation as a private milliner was rapidly becoming obsolete: increasingly, consumer goods were manufactured more quickly, more cheaply, and in greater numbers by factories and sold in the new department stores. Degas’ choice of composition reveals his intention to comment on this situation; examination of the canvas and preliminary drawings shows that he originally planned to depict a customer trying on a finished hat. During the course of executing the image, however, he became more interested in the act of production, and he scraped off the client and replaced her with the milliner. Although this young woman cannot own the fashionable items she creates, by making a visual contribution to modern society, she takes a place in history.
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