Monday, April 5, 2010

Monday's Millinery Musings - A fatal fascination with feathers

By guest blogger Jennifer.

I was once in the San Francisco airport on the way to boarding gate 23 when I came across a number of glass cases filled with hats - new and old, vintage and Victorian. Hats! I was in heaven until my eyes fell upon one particular picture hat. It was a large brimmed felt in a dusky hue, the brim edged in silk, and all around the crown in a veritable morgue lay several dozen preserved hummingbirds. I stared in fascination at their tiny dried bodies, their feathers still glowing with traces of rich color after nearly a century. I could imagine when the hat was new the hummingbirds artfully wired in such a way as to make them seem to hover lightly about the hat in and amongst the velvet leaves and satin ribbon.
But, I must tell you, I felt sad about them.

Feathers have held sway the imaginations of people throughout history - from Aztec kings with their sweeping capes of hummingbird and quetzal feathers, Wahgi tribals of Papau New Guinea and their red and black feathered ceremonial headdresses, to La Belle Epoque ladies in picture hats elaborately trimmed with the extrordinary emerald, spice, blue, yellow and cream plumes of the birds of paradise, or mountainous froths of pink or purple tinted ostrich feathers.

Lesser bird of paradise
Resplendent Quetzal
Although La Belle Epoque, a brief and frivolous time, covered only the first decade of the Twentieth Century it was long enough to nearly bring to extinction numerous species of exotic birds worldwide.  The demand for elaborately feathered hats, boas, fans and aigrettes (feathered hair combs) was unprecedented. Huge quantities of feathers were imported from the Americas, South Africa and all corners of the British Empire. Most of the feathers found their way to Paris, where there were 800 plumassiers, feather-making workshops, which employed nearly 7,000 people. Feathers were very big business and the cry for more and more exotic feathers could not be satisfied.

Finally, dawn broke in the minds of some - including Britain's Queen Alexandra who agreed to ban ladies from court who wore osprey feathers in their hats - and the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) in England and the National Audubon Society in the United States came into being. Their mission then and now is to conserve and protect bird populations worldwide. They have done well for the birds.

Today there is one plumassier left in Paris, M. Andre Lemarie whose mother started the business over 100 years ago. I imagine every so often Monsieur Lemarie opens the tattered tobacco colored boxes and looks lovingly at the long saved and treasured birds of paradise and osprey feathers among so many rare and fine feathered treasures that make up his vast collection.

Marabou Stork

Hatmakers everywhere still love feathers, but we have learned to use farmed ostrich, pheasant, duck and cockerel feathers - and to great advantage. Milliners have always been able to adapt to change, and indeed welcome it.

Blue Bird of Paradise

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