Madame Virot, Caroline Reboux, and the Paris Millinery Trade
The second half of the 19th century was the heyday of the millinery trade in Paris. The industry was dominated by women, at its peak employing thousands in small, independent millinery shops throughout Paris. These shops were often times run by enterprising women, some of whom were also designers, who each could employ dozens of young women and girls. Two of the most renowned and celebrated milliners during this time were Madame Virot and Caroline Reboux. More so than any other modiste, or milliner, these two women shaped the Paris millinery trade and influenced hat fashions throughout the world for years to come.
Madame Virot began her career working as a milliner’s apprentice in the mid-19th century. Her hats caught the attention of the Empress Eugénie, wife of Napoleon III and one of the most fashionable women in Paris. Virot’s role as the Empress’s milliner brought her greater prestige and more clients, and around 1860, she established a shop at number 12, Rue de la Paix, in the prestigious fashion shopping district near the Champs-Élysées. There, she achieved international success, designing hats for aristocrats from France, England, and Russia, as well as for wealthy Americans. Her designs captured the interest of impressionist artist Édouard Manet, who was said to be “enthralled” by her wares. Manet’s famous portrait, Spring (Jeanne) (1881, J. Paul Getty Museum), features the young actress Jeanne Demarsy wearing a hat of Virot’s design.
Virot was praised for her “extraordinary native taste and skill”, and her styles were recognized for their wide range of elegant trimmings, including flowers, ribbons, and plumes. Sumptuous materials like silk velvet and glittering paillettes, or decorative metal sequin-like discs, complemented her use of dramatic ostrich and bird of paradise plumes, as well as her penchant for incorporating lifelike silk flowers.
Madame Virot’s impact on millinery was profound. She was so successful that she became a millionaire in the 1880s, cementing her position as one of the giants in the fashion industry. Other modistes sought to emulate her success, often by imitating her designs. Virot’s own son Paul went into business with her former première (workshop head) Berthe Raymond, opening several shops throughout Paris that sold hats remarkably similar to those found in Virot’s boutique.
Like Virot, Caroline Reboux started working in a millinery shop at an early age, and went on to become one of the most influential modistes in 19th-century Paris, earning the nickname “The Queen of Milliners.” She supposedly was discovered by the Princess von Metternich and the Countess de Pourtales, two fashionable ladies in the court of Empress Eugénie. Reboux soon became a well-known designer, and opened her own shop at number 23, Rue de la Paix. By 1900, Reboux employed more than 100 workers.
While Virot’s designs reflected elegance and opulence, Reboux’s designs were innovative, creating hats that ranged from exuberantly decorated bonnets to minimalist toques. She favored plumes as trimmings, often utilizing the natural beauty of the feathers of pheasants, egrets, and other birds to adorn her hat styles.  Into the early years of the 20th century, Reboux’s business was still going strong and her artistic creativity had not waned. During this period, she is credited (along with fellow modiste Lucie Hamar) with inventing the cloche hat—a fitted, helmet-like cap that became ubiquitous in the 1920s.
Reboux’s legacy continued after her death in 1927. Her shop remained open under the supervision of her former premiere, Lucienne Rabaté, who also was a model for designer Coco Chanel. Reboux influenced the next generation of modistes, including the famous Hollywood milliner Lilly Daché, who trained in Paris under Reboux before moving to America and opening her own millinery boutique in New York. The founders of Rose Valois, one of the leading millinery workshops in the mid-20th century Paris, also trained under Reboux, and offered similarly innovative hat designs throughout the 1930s and 40s.