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Of Mirrors and Milliners

Degas, Millinery Shop

For my money, the best way to experience Edgar Degas’s The Millinery Shop in Impressionism, Fashion, and Modernity is with your back to it. Now don’t get me wrong, looking at it straight on is lovely. You can peer—as if through a shop window—at the macaroon-like chapeaus and the woman admiring (or perhaps working on?) them. But when you turn around, you see a real life display case full of 19th-century hats. The jaunty headpieces— made of velvet, silk and lace—mimic the placement of those in the painting, propped on stands at varying heights. There is also a mirror behind them that gives 360-degree view of the objects. But perhaps more importantly, the mirror allows you to see the painting itself, igniting comparisons and creating an experience that just isn’t possible if you were, say, looking at this image on a computer.

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In fact, throughout the entire exhibition, objects are mounted in cases and flanked with mirrors. This choice—a conscious one made early in the exhibition planning—allows viewers to see garments and accessories in the round. It also creates an immersive and interactive experience you might not expect.

Plus, the mirrors do one more thing. They add you. Suddenly, that shirt you saw on a blog, bought on a website, and picked out to wear today is in conversation with Degas and his milliner and the hats of real 19th-century ladies. In my case, that conversation creates the feeling of being wildly underdressed.

—Tricia Patterson, Marketing Coordinator

Image Credit: Edgar Degas. Millinery Shop, 1879/86. The Art Institute of Chicago, Mr. and Mrs. Lewis Larned Coburn Memorial Collection.