Original Leisure & Entertainment

How Did Feathers Become Fashion? ~ The History of Ordinary Things

We aren’t the first to wear feather accessories! The Neanderthals wore the darker feathers of birds of prey. Later, high-ranking Egyptians wore ostrich feathers in their hair as a symbol of allegiance to the Goddess of Truth. In 12th-century feathers were attached to Italian papier-mâché masks to conceal one’s identity during the pre-Lenten festivities.

By the 1500s, fur trimmings and feathers were common in the aristocrat’s wardrobe. They were symbols of high social standing. In the 16th century, the Crusaders wore feathers on their heads to show status, wealth, and ethnicity. When Portugal colonized Brazil in the 1600s, they adopted the Carnival celebrations with dance, music, and feather costumes. Ostrich, swan, and peacock feathers were favored.

Indigenous Americans have historically worn feather head dresses, also known as war bonnets, to mark accomplishments. The feathers are of spiritual significance and are worn by tribal leaders on ceremonial occasions.

Feathers as fashion accessories peaked during the 18th, 19th, and early 20th centuries. The demand for feather adornments gave rise to milliners who created extravagant hats. Flappers of the Jazz Age (1920s) wore dramatic feather boas across their shoulders. By the 1930s, movie stars were using feathered accessories to enhance movement and drama on stage.

Behind the scenes, the demand for feathers created a sordid industry with hunters pillaging bird species to near extinction, such as egrets and herons. The pillage led to the passing of the Lacey Act in 1900, a conservation law prohibiting wildlife trade. Additionally, the newly formed National Audubon Society lobbied Congress to pass the Migratory Bird Act of 1913. This Act prohibited spring hunting of migratory birds. The American ornamental feather market largely collapsed under these restrictions.

The stock market crash of 1929 ended the extravagance of the Roaring 20’s giving way to a somber era of austerity in the 1930’s. Feathers were relegated to entertainment and eroticism, typically cabaret fans and headdresses, burlesque outfits and costumes associated with “old Hollywood glamour”.

Feather boas are usually made of ostrich or turkey feathers. Ostrich feathers are long and thin forming fluffy boas. Turkey feathers are shorter and wider, hence form heavy boas. Boa feathers have been sterilized, bleached, or dyed and are glued and stitched into ply. The more ply, the thicker and fluffier the boa.

Today nearly 98% of feathers used in fashion are salvaged from poultry meat production. Feathers can also be gathered from live birds when they are molting (shedding old feathers). On the seedy side of the industry, the illegal live plucking of conscious birds has been documented in some countries. This animal torture results in multiple batches of feathers before the bird is finally slaughtered for the final feather harvest. Increasingly today, boas are made using fibers versus feathers.

The feather boa is still a favorite for the Red Hat Club, costume parties, showgirls and drag divas. Have you noticed that women get “giddy” in a boa? There is something almost magic about them because “You can’t be sad in a boa”. Try it!

Doris Montag

Doris Montag

Doris is a collector, a storyteller and a free-lance curator whose passion is unlocking the stories in collections from family or private individuals. She develops and installs exhibits in small museums, libraries, and public spaces. And she writes about her experiences in her column, The History of Ordinary Things. > Read Full Biography > More Articles Written By This Writer