Prada, Fendi and Burberry have all included it in their collections, it used to be strictly reserved for those of social standing, and cabaret dancers made it seductive. We are talking about the humble feather. Maria Kaski takes us on a fashionable journey through the history of a truly glamorous accessory.

Brace yourselves for the feathers revival. Although society seems to have declared war on certain species of birds (I’m thinking of the poor pigeons who had their Nelson’s columns home repossessed), the world of fashion, not one to follow social norms, has sought inspiration from our feathered friends.

The result is that right now, feathers are everywhere. From pantomimic peacock plumes to demure hen feathers, plumage has been spotted on catwalks and red carpets alike, establishing itself as the fashion lovers staple accessory.

But this is not just a fast fading fad, it is in fact just the latest episode in the humble feather’s long fashion career which dates back to the 11th century. Whether worn as a corsage or head piece, the feather is an accessory which has always denoted subtle sophistication and transports its wearer into the stratospheric realm of true vintage glamour.

The feather was introduced to the world of fashion in the Middle Ages (1066-1482), when men and women of high social standing decorated their head-dresses with plumes and jewellery to display their status. Even as early as the 12thcentury, Venetian masks were decorated with gold, silver, chrystals and feathers. These elaborate masks, and in particular the half-mask Columbine style allowed the beauty of the wearer to still be visible, and no doubt made them extremely popular amidst the young women of high society.

Given that fashion during Medieval times was dominated and highly influenced by the Kings and Queens of the era, only the wealthy could dress fashionably. The elaborate head-dress, therefore, worn by people in the Middle Ages, immediately conveyed the high rank of the wearer, and by the latter part of the 15th century, feather and fur trimmings had become a staple part of the aristocracy’s wardrobes.

Strictly for those of high social standing, however, the trend did not catch on for the general populace until the dawn of the 18th century. Although feather boas made from ostrich, marabou, turkey and chandelle feathers emerged as a stylish accessory during the 17th century, they did not become popular until the late Victorian and Edwardian eras.

Considered an elegant accessory, the humble boa sparked the eventual boom in the international plumage trade in the 18th, 19th and even 20th centuries among ordinary women and entertainers alike.

While cabaret dancers in Paris were clad in extravagant feather head-dresses and seductively used their boas for erotic shows, women of high class took to decorating their hats and gowns with feathers , using them as an embodiment of their own fragility.

The bonnet, popular from 1795-1820, allowed the wearer to decorate the crowns and brims with elaborate adornments such as feathers and ribbons.

Throughout the 1860s, it was hats and no longer bonnets that became a staple of the female wardrobe. Amongst the popular choices was the dolls hat, which would be decorated with cockades of of feathers and would be worn pearched at the front of the head over enormous hairstyles. As bonnets became gradually more matronly and hats took centre stage, feather decorations became more and more flamboyant.

The abundent market demands in North America and Europe for extravagant head-dresses as adornments for fashionable women of this time, however, led to destruction of whole bird breeding colonies, turning the feather fashion trend into a catastrophic environmental disaster, and subsequently leading to political intervention in America.

Introduced in 1900, the Lacey Act became the first federal law in the USA protecting wildlife. The law prohibited the transportation of illigally captured or prohibited animals accross strates, and is still in effect today, though it has been hugely amended.

This political intervention and the major conservationist campaign that preceded it, finally cemented the feather market collapse, and the subsequent decline in feather accessorizing.

Nowadays, thanks to recent designer  collections, the feather has once again taken centre stage, and has for years now been enjoying a re-invention. The modern plumage however, is not just an added adornment to simple hats and dresses. Designers have used this beautifully versatile item to create stunning dresses (Karl Lagerfeld for Fendi), earrings, purses (Christopher Bailey for Burberry) and waistcoats to name but a few.

Luckily, the feather market is now environmentally sustainable, with controlled restrictions having been placed on the feathers that can be used for fashion purposes. Yet although the modern take on plumage is certainly striking, there is much more to be said about the vintage items gracing our fashionable ancestor’s heads and gowns.

With vintage shops stocking an enviable selection of feather garments, we recommend that you take inspiration from the early 20th century cabarets and experiment with the flirtatious use of feathers in hats and on dresses. Remember, when it comes to feathers follow the pathway of natural selection and choose the most colourful and extravagant plumage to make you stand out from the crowd.

It is after all, the sophisticated feather, and not the diamond, that has since time immemorial secretly been establishing itself as the savvy woman’s best friend.


One Response

  1. Vintage Tiaras by Julia Beazley

    Loved the article about History of the Feather! I often use feathers in my original vintage headbands and tiaras. Would love you to have a peek or maybe do a little feature on my pieces sometime. Feathers really do add a touch of old style Hollywood glamour to my pieces. Love your magazine x Julia