The jeering Parisian crowds lining the route to the guillotine were all too aware that the plain white, ugly mobcap Marie Antoinette was forced to wear for her execution was designed to mock her excesses. When she had become queen in 1774, she had rebelled against the traditional dress style of the French court, ordering the latest, more provocative styles – including hairpieces topped off with large arrays of feathers – from Rose Bertin, who became a leading French milliner and dressmaker.
A mountain of powdered hair piled high and finished with a large panache of ostrich and other feathers (as seen below, in this 1778 portrait of Marie Antoinette) set a fashion trend and projected extreme extravagance, when many French people endured terrible shortages.
Marie Antoinette may have picked precisely the wrong time to flaunt her passion for outrageous headwear, but that didn’t stop Paris fashion – flamboyant, feather-bedecked hats in particular – becoming the envy of women of means across Europe and America. Not that the new flamboyance was welcomed by everyone. At first, the English aristocracy claimed to be shocked. To Lady Charlotte Bury, a novelist, noted beauty and delight of the highest circles of London Society, “the ugliest part of the habillements [attire] is the high chimneys on their heads, which… are covered with feathers”.
Nevertheless, English society, and Lady Charlotte, were soon persuaded. Feathers – mainly ostrich, pheasant and peacock for plumes, and marabou (the feathers of adjutant storks found in parts of Africa) for trimmings – adorned wide-brimmed hats set atop hair piled high. It was fashion in the extreme. And it was unbelievably popular.
But this use of feathers and whole stuffed birds for head adornment and hat decor long predated Marie Antoinette. The Mayan civilisation of the Americas used the feathers of a variety of birds – especially brilliantly coloured quetzals and parrots such as macaws – to decorate headdresses worn by the elite of their society. New Guinea tribes- men have been wearing headdresses of stunning arrays of birds of paradise feathers for many thousands of years, while the Plains Indian headdresses of eagle feathers worn by Henry VIII wore a flamboyant panache of four-foot-long feathers when he majestically rode into Boulogne tribes such as the Sioux, Crow and Blackfoot were of huge spiritual and political importance for millennia.
In Europe, feathers first became common as a hat decoration in the early 14th century. During the 16th century, hats adorned with ostrich feathers were in demand by those wealthy enough to purchase them in the fashion centres of Europe: Paris, Vienna, Florence and Prague. Wealthy ladies, courtiers and high-ranking military officers wore them too.
A famous panache of feathers, comprising no fewer than eight plumes, each over four feet long, was worn by the ever flamboyant King Henry VIII when he rode majestically into Boulogne, his forces having seized it from the French in September 1544. They were probably the tail feathers of a species of Indian peafowl.
This kind of panache, usually comprising naturally white or black ostrich feathers – but sometimes dyed in other colours – atop an officer’s hat was deemed to have a practical function as well, and was not simply an adornment. It made the wearer much more visually obvious to his soldiers. Before the battle of Ivry in Normandy in 1590, King Henry IV of France commanded his leaders “not to lose sight of his white panache, that it would lead them to victory and honour”. His forces won the battle, thanks to his panache or otherwise.
The ostriches whose magnificent feathers were used to make these panaches originally inhabited virtually all of north Africa, much of eastern and southern Africa, the Arabian peninsula and large parts of the Middle East. They had always been hunted for food, but once a market developed in Europe for their feathers to adorn hats, the killing was stepped up. Chased on horseback until they were exhausted, or shot, their populations were soon being depleted. In 1807, an estimated 509 kilos of ostrich feathers were imported into France alone. By 1850, they had been reduced to near extinction across the Arabian peninsula; they had all but disappeared from north Africa before the 19th century was out.
In fact, the killing only slowed when the first ostrich farms were set up in the southern cape of South Africa in the 1860s. After that, feathers from farmed ostriches dominated the trade – and saved the wild ostrich from certain extinction.
By 1600 the feathers of more exotic birds were appearing in Europe: incredibly colourful bird of paradise skins from New Guinea; parrot feathers from South America; and the snow-white, gossamer-fine breeding plumes of egrets from southern Asia and the Americas which, by 1914, were worth up to 28 times the equivalent weight of silver. There are no accurate records of the numbers of wild egrets killed worldwide; estimates for how many little egrets were supplied annually for millinery alone vary between 5 and 200 million. Only in recent decades have their numbers recovered.
Feathers of some British birds were sought after, too. Great crested grebes, attractive common birds of lakes and reservoirs, were shot for their chestnut-brown ear feather tufts, known in the trade as “tippet”. Their slaughter began in the second half of the 19th century and reduced them to just 42 pairs in nine years. Seabirds – in particular sea-cliff breeding kittiwakes – were persecuted too. The black-marked white wings of these small gulls were popular for decorating fashionable ladies’ headwear.
Gradually, hats adorned with exotic feathers were no longer the preserve of the wealthy. From the mid-19th century, the catalogues of the large department stores that had begun to spring up brought a huge variety of hats to a much wider clientele; before this, they had sported hats made of rabbit fur or even wool. In France it was Bon Marché and Galeries Lafayette; in London, Whiteleys was followed by Peter Robinson, Liberty and Harrods.
Unsurprisingly, the trade burgeoned. In the first quarter of 1885, 750,000 egret skins were sold at London auctions, and in 1887 a single London dealer handled 2 million of them. The city cornered the international feather market, and buyers came from across Europe and from the US to view and buy stock. Nearly 40 million pounds’ weight (more than 18,000 tonnes) of plumage and bird skins, excluding ostrich feathers, was imported into the UK between 1870 and 1920. Maybe 200 million birds a year were be- ing killed. At its peak at the end of the 19th century, the feather trade was worth £20m a year to Britain.
WH Hudson, an author, naturalist and leading British ornithologist of his day, recoiled with horror as he witnessed one sale of 80,000 parrot skins and 1,700 skins of birds of paradise late in 1897. “Spread out in Trafalgar Square they would have covered a large proportion of that space with a grass- green carpet, flecked with vivid purple, rose and scarlet,” he commented.
By the mid-19th century, feather-embellished hats were the height of fashion in US cities too. Sometime in 1886, Frank Chapman, a leading American ornithologist, took two afternoon walks to record the birds he spotted in New York’s uptown shopping districts. Three-quarters of the 700 ladies’ hats he saw were decorated with whole stuffed birds, sometimes several on one hat, or were adorned with their feathers. He counted 40 different species. With no legal protection, any species – American or imported – could be killed.
In the US, whole colonies of tree-breeding egrets and herons were soon shot out, their exquisite breeding plumes cut off and the birds left to rot, their eggs and starving youngsters abandoned. To keep up with demand, plumes had to be imported. The 33,000 pounds of egret plumes recorded as being exported from Argentina, Brazil and Venezuela between 1899 and 1912 represents somewhere around 15 million of the smaller species of egret. In 1903, the price for plumes offered to American hunters was $32 an ounce, twice the value of gold at that time. Later they reached $80 an ounce, the price for increasing rarity as the birds were hunted down.
Ending the carnage
How did the ladies wearing them justify the bird killing? Some wrongly assumed that these were naturally moulted feathers and no birds were killed. Others subscribed to the belief that human “needs” reigned supreme over wild nature. There was also a commonly held and naive view that there was some self-perpetuating abundance of birds, and that more would appear miraculously each year, however many were killed.
However, not everyone tolerated this fashion-stimulated carnage. And some were determined to take direct action. For in- stance, in 1889 Emily Williamson, a well-to- do resident of Didsbury, Manchester, established the Society for the Protection of Birds (SPB). Joining forces with three other women who had set up the Fur and Feather League in Croydon, Surrey, their campaign created the RSPB and led, after many acrimonious exchanges with the trade and its supporters, to legislation banning feather importation in 1921. It had taken more than three decades.
Across the Atlantic, in 1896 Harriet Hemenway and her cousin Minna Hall started a similar campaign in Boston, Massachusetts. Steadily attracting more and more members, they formed Audubon – to- day one of the largest bird protection charities in the world – and fought a long, verbal battle with the millinery trade. Although some protective legislation was passed in the US after a few years, the importation of feathers wasn’t banned until 1918, when the US Congress passed the Migratory Bird Act.
Fashion, always ephemeral, was changing anyway. By the 1920s, automobiles – a more potent fashion icon than a feather-adorned hat – made it impossible to wear a hat the size of a small coffee table in a car with a hood.
The world was changing, too. With so many families grieving loved ones lost in the First World War, flamboyant, attention-seeking headwear seemed somehow inappropriate. More conservative attire was de rigueur. Although the war had cut off the bulk of feather imports into London, and a tax was imposed on the import of luxury goods, feathers included, it was a human catastrophe – not an animal one – that precipitated a fashion reassessment.
Malcolm Smith is a biologist, a former chief scientist and former deputy chief executive at the Countryside Council for Wales. His books include Hats: A Very Unnatural History (Michigan State University Press, 2020)