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The Sad Truth about the Fashion for Silent Songbirds

Edwardian evening hat of sequins and aigrettes suitable for a society matron.

For late 19th and early 20th century New Yorkers, bird watching was a pastime that could be enjoyed on the streets and avenues of the bustling city. One did not have to journey to exotic locales to find tropical plumage, nor head to the seaside to glimpse a Jack Snipe, Spotted Crake, or other water bird. Gulls, Grebes, Mourning Doves, Turns, Quails, Owls, and Bird-of-paradise all found their way into fashion, as did Pheasant tails, Kiwi feathers, Jackdaw wings, and more. Birds of every description that had been captured, killed, plucked, fleshed, and stuffed, proudly perched upon fashionable ladies’ hats of the time, including avian headpieces of the type worn by Sarah Jessica Parker’s Carrie Bradshaw character in the wedding scene from Sex and the City: The Movie.

White tail feathers add a touch of the exotic to a bow-trimmed astrakhan hat.

Millinery marvels like Bradshaw’s Bird-of-paradise show-stopper—the property of New York Vintage’s rental-only archive—were commonplace one hundred and fifty years ago. They nodded to each other on the street, at balls, and over tea. In fact, such was the proliferation of fantastic feathered chapeaux that ornithologist, Frank Chapman, of the American Museum of Natural History, counted one hundred and seventy-six such toppers in a single outing in downtown New York.

Women in large North American cities could shop for feather millinery adornments at large emporiums where the offereings were laid out on tables, and salesmen gave instruction on the latest styles.

During the Victorian era, great numbers of hummingbirds alone were sacrificed for fashion, and not just for hats. Imagine the sensation caused in 1850 when Princess Alexandra attended a Royal London ball waving a white marabou fan fitted with a red hummingbird. In 1867, Princess Eugenie of France pinned a green and gold hummingbird to a dinner dress, inspiring jewelers to turn hummingbirds into expensive statement necklaces and hair ornaments. Feather necklaces may be a trend that is returning if the accessories chosen for some contemporary fashion collections catch on; however, with longstanding conservation laws in place, a craze for feathery fashion will not have the same devastating effects on bird species as were seen in the Victorian era.

Feather necklaces are trendy in 2018

At the height of the feather industry, when the mode for feathered hats and accessories ensured employment for plumassiers, feather beaters, curlers, and dressers, as well as feather wives and feather men, millions of birds were slaughtered each year for millinery purposes alone.

In the late 1880s, a group of Boston-area women—distressed by the profusion of bird-bearing hats that threatened the extinction of several species—organized to protest an over-zealous feather industry. Their efforts eventually led to the establishment of the Audubon Society, domestic bird sanctuaries, hunting regulations, the protection of migratory birds, and tariffs on the importation of tropical plumage.

The group shared their views door to door and in schools, instituted inspections of millinery stock, held fashion shows of acceptable headwear, and “white-listed” milliners who sold bird-less chapeaux. Eventually, styles changed, but during the thirty-five-year period during which debate over the issue grew, fashion periodicals responded in various ways with Ladies Home Journal and Harper’s Bazaar providing pro-conservationist editorial material. Vogue Magazine and Godey’s Ladies Book avoided the subject in editorials and continued to show feathered hats within their pages.

Note the two large white wings that adorn the hat on the right in this Prinz-Biederman magazine ad of 1913.

Illustrations of white listed hats from an 1893 Ladies Home Journal article entitled Fifteen Hats Without Feathers

The excessive use of feathers in hats and headdresses can be traced to the days of Marie Antoinette, whose attendants—spending as much as two thousand livres for a single plume—adorned their heads with so many feathers that when the courtiers circulated throughout the palace at Versailles, a “forest of feathers” swayed, bobbed, and nodded above their heads.

The court of eighteenth-century France was not alone in their avian obsession. The London Exhibition of 1851 encouraged the fashion for feathered hats through its many displays of plumed fashion. In addition to numerous natural history exhibits of millinery birds, the official catalogue of the London Exhibition of 1851 lists feather fans, brushes, flowers, bonnets, boas, head-dresses, and a textile known as ‘feathered tissue’.

Many millinery feather arrangements of the period represent species that are now extinct or are comprised of colorful breeding plumage that will never be duplicated. They are highly sought-after by collectors and prized by costume museums. Ostrich feathers—which can be harvested without harming the bird—and other preparations obtained legally, are also of interest to vintage clothing and accessories enthusiasts who use them to add period charm and authenticity to collectible hats.

Ostrich feathers could be harvested without harming the bird and are still used in fashion today. This trio was owned by Mrs. Florence Clark of Clark's pork & beans fame. Donated by Laurabelle McLean.

While the Audubon Society no longer offers public lectures on such topics as "Woman as a Bird Enemy" their work in the past ensured the survival of numerous species of birds. Unfortunately, many others can only be seen today in historical archives such as that of Canada’s Mobile Millinery Museum or on the feathery hats of former fashionistas.

For more feathered fantasies and other fabulous hats, check our 1,000 Hats (Schiffer Books).

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