Feathers in Fashion

Michelle Monaghan wearing dress with feathers
Michelle Monaghan wearing a feathered dress

Feathers are the horny outgrowth of skin found on birds. They serve a protective function for birds similar to the scales for fish and hair for mammals. Protecting birds from temperature extremes, feathers also help them fly and differentiate between the sexes.

Feathers are made up of a spiny central structure called the axis and flat side branches called barbs. The axis consists of a quill and a shaft. The quill is the hollow, colorless portion rooted in the skin, from which the feather derives nourishment while it is growing. From the quill to the tip of the feather is the shaft. It is solid and serves as an anchor to millions of barbs or inter-locking hooks. This is where most of the color is found.

Feathers come in two main types: contour and down. Contour feathers, the most conspicuous of these types, are found on the wings and tail. The down feathers, considerably softer and fluffier than the contour feathers, are located at the base of the contour feathers.

Uses of Feathers

Feathers have had a wide range of uses for thousands of years. Pillows have been filled with feathers and down since around 400 C.E. Until the advent of steel pens in the mid-nineteenth century, the best writing instruments were made from the quill of goose feathers. Feathers have been used for toys for cats, magic, and medicine bags. But of most relevance to this volume is the use of feathers in personal adornment across time and culture.

Feathers and Symbolism

In a number of cultures, feathers have assumed great symbolism, often being associated with spirituality. Feather bonnets have been worn in religious ceremonies and ritual dances since the sixteenth century in Brazil.

Feathered spirit masks, made by the Tapirapé of the Amazon, play an important role in dry-season ceremonies performed by the Bird Societies as they circle their village and sing the songs of their respective bird species. For Yanomamö men of the Amazon, their feathered armbands worn high on their upper arms gave them the appearance of having wings, thereby bringing them closer to bird spirits.

The Native American war bonnet was made out of feathers from a golden eagle's tail. This headdress was a symbol of honor, accomplishment, and bravery.

In ancient Egypt, the ostrich feather was a symbol of truth. It was often seen in depictions of Ma'at, the goddess of truth and justice, who passed judgment over the souls of the dead.

Feathers and Fashion

The Chinese of 500 C.E. used feathered fans. Robin Hood of merry old England wore a feather in his hat. By the late nineteenth century, feathers had become a must-have fashion item around the world, primarily for muffs and hats. The demand for feathers seemed to know no bounds. In 1886, Frank Chapman, an American Museum of Natural History ornithologist, counted feathers or even whole birds adorning 542 out of 700 hats he observed being worn by ladies from New York City. An estimated 5 million birds were killed each year to supply feathers for fashion items according to the American Ornithologists' Union. Bird species were plundered in the United States, Burma, Malaya, Indonesia, China, Australia, New Zealand, and throughout Europe. As a result, some bird species were greatly threatened and several became extinct. The nineteenth-century popularity of the feather muff led to the extinction of the bittern. The huia of New Zealand was extinct by the early twentieth century as well. Populations of snowy egrets and other wading birds were greatly reduced.

The Future of Feathers

As a result of the decimation of bird populations all over the world, some environmental concern began to emerge and bird protection laws began to be enacted in the early twentieth century. Queen Alexandra of England made a statement by getting rid of all of her own hats with feathers on them in 1906. In 1918, the Federal Migratory Bird Treaty Act was signed between the United States and Canada. This treaty limits sportsman to shooting migratory birds no more than three and a half months a year. In 1937 a similar treaty was established between the United States and Mexico. The Endangered Species Act of 1973 contains important provisions for the protection of migratory birds. In addition, international treaties between the United States and Japan and the former Soviet Union protect migratory birds that spend part of their year in the different countries. In the early 2000s most wild birds are protected. It is illegal to use feathers from songbirds (such as chickadees), marsh birds (such as egrets), and birds of prey (such as eagles) in the United States for clothing and accessories.

While the laws undoubtedly helped reduce the number of birds being killed for use in clothing and accessories, perhaps the biggest reason that birds on the endangered species list made a comeback was a change in fashion. In the 1920s, young women cut their hair so short that it could not properly support the large hats that had been decorated with many feathers just a few years earlier. Feathers did reappear on hats in the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s. By the late 1960s, very few women wore hats on a regular basis. In the early 2000s, less colorful feathers from chickens and ducks are dyed vivid colors. Also, technology has allowed fake feathers and fur to look very realistic.

Feather Purchase and Care

For those with a passion for feathers, there are many Web sites where customers can buy feathers that look like a golden eagle, which is illegal to kill, but are really dyed and trimmed from legal feathers. Other businesses assure their customers that the feathers were obtained by natural molting and not by killing of birds. The following types of feathers are generally available: duck, goose, guinea hen, macaw, pheasant, turkey, peacock, ostrich, and rooster.

Since cleaning feathers can be quite damaging to them, it is best to take preventive measures to ensure their longevity. Feathers should be stored away from dust, light, and insects in pH neutral boxes, which can be obtained from businesses that sell archival storage materials. Ideal temperature for storage is 60 degrees Fahrenheit to 75 degrees Fahrenheit, with a humidity of 45 to 55 percent. Handling of feathers should be kept to a minimum.

See also North America: History of Indigenous Peoples' Dress; Fur; Inuit and Arctic Dress; Trimmings.

Bibliography

Braun, B., ed. Arts of the Amazon. London: Thames and Hudson, Inc., 1995.

Callan, G. O. The Thames and Hudson Dictionary of Fashion and Fashion Designers. London: Thames and Hudson, Inc., 1998.

Gillow, J., and B. Sentence. World Textiles: A Visual Guide to Traditional Techniques. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1999.

Thomas, N. Oceanic Art. London: Thames and Hudson, Inc., 1995.

Tortora, P. The Fairchild Encyclopedia of Fashion Accessories. New York: Fairchild Publications, 2003.

Feathers in Fashion