Feathers: Fashion and the Fight for Wildlife, was an exhibition exploring the history of the ground-breaking Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918, which aimed to protect millions of migratory and song birds that were being driven to extinction, simply for fashion’s sake.
The exhibition ran between April and July 2018, commemorating the centennial of this landmark, lifesaving act. It delved into the circumstances that inspired environmentalists and activists, many of them women and New Yorkers, who lobbied for the legislation and was an eye-opener for me, as it threw light on the brutal killing with intent of millions of birds – on a yearly basis – for the delicate beauty of their feathers.
Aigrettes are elegant plumes worn as hair or hat ornaments. They became especially popular among fashionable women during the late nineteenth century. Mature Snowy and Great Egrets develop these wispy feathers along their breasts, heads and tails during breeding season. Because of this seasonal plumage, the feathers were highly coveted by milliners. This delicate example, accented with five tiny diamonds and mounted on a gold headband, was worn by a bride on her wedding day.
When plume and game hunters killed adult egrets for their feathers, they also condemned their offspring. The deaths of adult egrets during breeding season left their eggs unprotected. Unattended, orphaned eggs succumbed before reaching maturity, while baby egrets died of starvation. This cruel method of harvesting earned aigrettes the scornful moniker, the ”white badge of cruelty”.
Late-nineteenth-century jewelers often used insects and animal parts to decorate jewelry. Exotic nectar feeders and native to the Americas like hummingbirds, honeycreepers are closely related to tropical tanagers and are found from Mexico to Brazil. They fascinated scientists, hunters and collectors. In 1865 London jeweler Harry Emanuel patented a method to inset hummingbird heads, skins and feathers into gold and silver mounts. As objects of beauty, hummingbird heads and feathers were prized as earrings, necklaces, brooches and fans. Earrings similar to this pair featuring male Red-legged Honeycreepers were shown at the 1876 Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia.
This satin evening dress, with elegant back bustle and lavish paisley velvet underskirt, is adorned with the diaphanous under-feathers, or down, of a swan. Intended for formal winter events, the regal, body-hugging dress is ornamented with down accents at the neck and along the train. Swans were an attribute of Venus, the Roman goddess of love. A dress decorated with swans’ down connoted wealth, status and mysterious sensuality, but put swans in jeopardy.
Reproductions of photographs by Lewis Wickes Hine (1874-1940)
Female feather workers toiled in factories and in tenement apartments. Inside hot and unventilated workshops, labourers continuously inhaled feather dust and particles. Preparing and decorating plumes was dirty, arduous work, often carried out by immigrant women and children. Piece-workers who cleaned and dressed feathers at home often engaged their children in processing plumes. In the first photograph, Mrs. Frances Rosep teaches her son and daughters, ages 7, 10 and 12, to ”willow’ feathers, a painstaking process of lengthening plumes. Pay for willowing ostrich feathers was determined by the overall finished length. The Rosep family earned $ 2.50 a week. Ostrich feathers fell outside of the purview of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act.
Mrs. Frothingham – Do you think that Audubon Millinery will ever be the vogue?
Mrs. Hungerford – Certainly I do. All that is necessary is to make the birdless bonnets the most expensive.
Waterbury Evening Democrat, April 23, 1898
Regional Audubon societies addressed the feather craze by promoting birdless hats trimmed with a variety of ribbons, flowers and fabric. State chapters extended invitations to leading milliners to manufacture ”Audobonnets”, which were often exhibited to the public. After the Pennsylvania Audubon Society’s 1896 exhibition of birdless millinery, Gimbel Brothers in Philadelphia sold the ”beautiful hats made without the help of plumage” in a separate department. Not to be outdone, Saks & Company in New York City offered humanitarian ”hats in the newest shapes”, ”gayest colourings” and ”richest of trimmings”.
Avian activism encouraged the invention of alternative trimmings. In New York, feather and ribbon traders promoted collections of colourful, textured decorations designed to emulate plumage. ”Ostraigrettes”, made of ostrich feathers in lieu of heron or egret, were among many clever imitations. Others were approved ”Audubon Society Millinery Feathers”, ”Neagrettes” and ”Pomponettes” fabricated from horse hair, patent leather, spun glass, chenille and silk, and hemp.
This image captures late nineteenth-century New York’s most stylish shopping district. Ladies’ Mile, as it was known, ran along Broadway and Sixth Avenue between 14th and 23rd Streets.
John James Audubon, original name Fougère Rabin or Jean Rabin, baptismal name Jean-Jacques Fougère Audubon, (born April 26, 1785, Les Cayes, Saint-Domingue, West Indies [now in Haiti]—died January 27, 1851, New York, New York, U.S.), was an ornithologist, artist, and naturalist who became particularly well known for his drawings and paintings of North American birds. [source]
New-York Historical Society
June 23rd, 2018