Avian Obsessions

Norma Shephard

For late 19th and early 20th century New Yorkers, bird watching was a pastime that could be enjoyed on the streets and avenues of the bustling city. One did not have to journey to exotic locales in order to find tropical plumage, nor head to the seaside to glimpse a Jack Snipe, Spotted Crake, or other water bird. Gulls, Grebes, Mourning doves, Turns, Quails, Owls, and Bird-of-Paradise all found their way into fashion, as did Pheasant tails, Kiwi feathers, Jackdaw wings, and more. Birds of every description that had been captured, killed, plucked, fleshed, and stuffed, proudly perched upon fashionable ladies’ hats of the time, including avian headpieces of the type worn by Sarah Jessica Parker’s Carrie Bradshaw character in the wedding scene from Sex And The City: The Movie.

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Millinery marvels like Bradshaw’s Bird-of-Paradise show-stopper—the property of New York Vintage’s rental-only archive—were commonplace one hundred and fifty years ago. They nodded to each other on the street, at balls, and over tea. In fact, such was the proliferation of fantastic feathered chapeaux that ornithologist, Frank Chapman, of the American Museum of Natural History counted one hundred and seventy-six such toppers in a single outing in downtown New York.

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During the Victorian era great numbers of hummingbirds alone were sacrificed for fashion, and not just for hats. Imagine the sensation caused in 1850 when Princess Alexandra attended a Royal London ball waving a white marabou fan fitted with a red hummingbird. In 1867 Princess Eugénie of France pinned a green and gold hummingbird to a dinner dress, inspiring jewelers to turn hummingbirds into expensive statement necklaces and hair ornaments. Feather necklaces may be a trend that is returning if the accessories chosen for the Marc Jacobs Spring/Summer 2011 Collection catch on; however, with longstanding conservation laws in place, a craze for feathery fashion will not have the same devastating effects seen in the Victorian era.

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At the height of the feather industry when the mode for feathered hats and accessories ensured employment for plumassiers, feather beaters, curlers, and dressers, as well as feather wives and feather men, millions of birds were slaughtered each year for millinery purposes alone.


In the late 1880s, a group of Boston-area women—distressed by the profusion of bird-bearing hats that threatened the extinction of a number of species—organized to protest an over-zealous feather industry. Their efforts eventually led to the establishment of the Audubon society, domestic bird sanctuaries, hunting regulations, the protection of migratory birds, and tariffs on the importation of tropical plumage.

The group shared their views door to door and in schools, instituted inspections of millinery stock, held fashion shows of acceptable headwear, and “white-listed” milliners who sold bird-less chapeaux. Eventually styles changed, but during the 35 year period during which debate over the issue grew, fashion periodicals responded in various ways, with Ladies Home Journal and Harper’s Bazaar providing pro-conservationist editorial material, while Vogue and Godey’s Ladies Book avoided the subject in editorials, and continued to show feathered hats within their pages.

Many millinery feather arrangements of the period representing species that are now extinct, or comprised of colorful breeding plumage that will never be duplicated, are highly sought-after by collectors today. Ostrich feathers—which can be harvested without harming the bird—and other preparations obtained legally are also of interest to vintage clothing and accessories enthusiasts who use them to add period charm and authenticity to collectible hats.

Vintage millinery plumage can be found for sale on line, but may not be on display as such at antiques shops and vintage clothing outlets. Collectors are advised to ask for it, as many times these bits of frippery are stashed out of sight. Prices vary from vendor to vendor but may also depend upon age, condition, and rarity. Ask for hats and hat boxes as well as millinery trims. Stuffed birds, made birds—feathers, beaks and claws assembled to look like birds—wings, tails, and aigrettes are often attached to their original hat or may be found hiding under hats at the bottom of a hat box.

While the Audubon Society no longer offers public lectures on such topics as “Woman as a Bird Enemy” their work in the past ensured the survival of numerous species of birds. Unfortunately many others can only be seen today in museum archives, or on the feathery hats of former fashionistas.

The excessive use of feathers in hats and headdresses can be traced to the days of Marie Antoinette, whose attendants—spending as much as two thousand livres for a single plume—adorned their heads with so many feathers that when the courtiers circulated throughout the palace at Versailles, a “forest of feathers” swayed, bobbed and nodded above their heads.

The court of eighteenth century France was not alone in their avian obsession.


Published by Norma Shephard

I'm the founder and director of the Mobile Millinery Museum & author of five books on vintage fashion.

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