Wearing Feathers Was Once As Condemned As Wearing Fur

By Debra Kelly on Saturday, August 2, 2014
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“I was always a lover of soft-winged things.” —Victor Hugo, I Was Always a Lover

In A Nutshell

At one time, it was the height of fashion for women to wear massive hats lavishly adorned with feathers and sometimes, with entire birds. Once people realized just where those birds were coming from, the mass killings that were being carried out by bird hunters and the species that had been driven to extinction in the name of fashion, an anti-plumage movement was started to discourage the trade. Laws were passed, but the finishing blow to the fad wasn’t legislation, it was social pressure and a world war.

The Whole Bushel

Today, wearing a real fur coat out in public in many areas will get you anything from angry looks to paint being thrown on you. This isn’t the first time that people got up in arms about the wholesale slaughter of animals for nothing more than a fashion statement. At the turn of the 20th century, people were concerned about birds.

On both sides of the Atlantic, wearing a feather in your hat was quite the fashion statement, mostly for women. And more than that, hats required not just a feather but 10 or more of them to be considered truly fashionable. Those were just the everyday hats of the everyday person, with the wealthier women opting to wear hats that were made up of not just feathers but wings, eyes, beaks, and entire birds. The more dramatic the feathers, the better the hat. Birds that ended up being popularly hunted for their feathers included ostriches, peacocks, eagles, hawks, vultures, cranes, and turkeys.

When a New York City ornithologist decided to go bird-watching among ladies hats one day in 1886, he spotted 174 different types of birds.

Fortunately, animal rights activists in both America and Europe spoke out and spread the word to society’s ladies about the horrible cruelty that was needed in order for them to get their feathers. Supporters included high-ranking members and founders of the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and the Audubon Society.

These organizations started spreading information on how these feathers were acquired, and people listened.

Many birds, such as flamingos, herons, and other water birds, were hunted primarily during their breeding season when their feathers were at their brightest and boldest. Hunters would kill the parents, leaving the unattended babies to die. Not only was this a horrible image in itself, but it also allowed supporters of the anti-plumage movement to tug at the maternal instincts of the people wearing feathers most often.

Some birds, like the bittern, were hunted to extinction only for their feathers. In the 15 years between 1905 and 1920, somewhere around 80,000 skins from birds of paradise were shipped back to Europe for their sole inclusion in hats.

One Boston woman named Harriet Hemenway began holding meetings for the ladies in her circle, during which she would inform them of the great cruelty and suffering that their fashion statement was causing.

In Great Britain, the Society for the Protection of Birds was established in 1889, with support from the royal family who declared they would not wear anything containing the feathers of birds. There was even an Anti-Plumage League founded in Tasmania by the owners of the Beaumaris Zoo. Lawmakers in the United States began to pass legislation that made it illegal to import or trade in the feathers of wild birds, but milliners continued to use the feathers and people continued to buy them.

It was, oddly, World War I and societal pressure that finally helped put an end to the trade in bird feathers where laws could not. Trade, imports, and shipping needed to be used for necessities, and suddenly, bird feathers weren’t one of them. It became something of a taboo to wear the bird-feather hats that had been so popular in the years before, as it was said to show a disregard for the seriousness of current events and blinding ignorance to import something as frivolous as feathers when there were so many more important things that society was in need of.

Show Me The Proof

Tasmanian Government: Mary Grant Roberts
Lapham’s Quarterly: Fine-Feathered Friends
Feather Fashions and Bird Preservation: A Study in Nature Protection, by Robin W. Doughty
Sydney Morning Herald: The Anti-Plumage League