Two milliners sit at a dramatically angled worktable, their bodies partly obscured by the shadowed hat stands that crowd their work space. Seen as little more than a silhouette, the figure at right works carefully on a hat. Her attentiveness is not shared by her older counterpart who, though grasping a swath of pink fabric, appears lost in thought, gazing beyond the frame with a disquieting expression. The brightly colored ribbons--pink, yellow, orange, and green--draw attention to the drabness of the room and its inhabitants.
Over the course of about thirty years, Edgar Degas produced more than twenty paintings, pastels, and drawings of millinery shops. Among modern painters, Degas alone depicted this subject matter with such frequency. His voyeuristic yet empathetic portrait of the milliner's private world focuses on the physical hardship of their work. The woman at the left embodies the painter's concern; even at rest, her wiry body and pallid skin registers a life of hard work and meager reward.