A Feather in your Cap
When having a feather in your cap just wasn’t enough
The first decade of the 20th century was a peak period of popularity for hats in history. Almost everyone went outside with something covering the head, and whatever was sitting up there made a quick first impression as far as background and class.
You might see immigrants on the Lower East Side wearing scarves, caps, kerchiefs or, in the case of Orthodox Jewish women, wigs.
Middle-class men favored straw hats and bowlers.
Styles for women ranged from simple boaters to jumbo-size, wide-brimmed a??picture hats” that might be piled high with fruits, flowers, fur, ribbon, and jewels.
Feathers had been used as fashion accessories for hundreds of years, but at the turn of the 20th century, their use was at an all-time high — in altitude as well as quantity.
The millinery trade cast about for all sorts of elaborate hat decorations to keep women coming back for the most up-to-date styles. Many verged on the ridiculous, and some were downright bizarre. Still…
The first time I saw a photograph of a woman with a dead bird on her hat, I couldn’t believe my eyes.
After investigating, I discovered that fowl fashion was not some odd blip, but a real trend.
Sometimes a hat might have a pair of birds arranged on the crown as if frozen in some kind of mating ritual.
Sometimes it looked as if a gull had dive-bombed onto the hat like a wayward attacker from Alfred Hitchcock’s movie The Birds.
Sometimes it just seemed like a small visitor was happily nesting on the brim.
This craze needed to be stopped — and not only, as the judges on Project Runway would say, because of the questionable taste level.
In 1903, an ounce of fashionable feathers was worth twice as much as an ounce of gold. It takes four birds to make once ounce of feathers. The most desirable plumes came from wading birds: herons, egrets, cranes, roseate, spoonbills and flamingos. During nesting seasons, hunters were able to get quite close to their prey. They could kill with ease and often left baby birds to die.
Guns were cheap and easy to obtain. There were no regulations protecting wildlife. The resulting slaughter of birds left some breeds in danger of extinction.
These days wea??re familiar with PETA, and protests over the use of animal pelts to make coats. At the turn of the 20th century, the use of birds to decorate hats was the burning issue.
It was a woman named Harriet Hemenway who spearheaded the movement. After reading about the rampant hunting of egrets, she decided to rally her friends and other a??club womena?? to save the birds.
Harriet Hemenway painted by John Singer Sargant
Women’s clubs were a big thing at the time — a way for upper middle-class women to hang out. They’d eat, gossip, pursue intellectual topics, and support social goals.
In 1896, Hemenway established the Massachusetts Audubon Society.
A naturalist named George Bird Grinnell had attempted to establish an Audubon Society ten years earlier, but the organization didn’t catch on and was basically moribund until Hemenway took up the cause of bird hats. Her campaigning led to contingents of other club women to start up their own Audubon Societies across the country. Eventually their collective power helped push though a series of state and federal laws to protect bird wildlife.
It’s interesting to consider that a bird is usually associated with the freedom of flight, yet these hats were worn at a time when women dressed in extremely constricting clothes. Corsets, long heavy skirts, high-neck shirt collars. Zippers weren’t in used yet and almost everything, even shoes, closed with tiny, closely-spaced buttons.
I can’t help but wonder if, on some level, all these birds on the brain, so to speak, were an expression of the wearers feeling “grounded.”
After all, a woman at the turn of the 19th century was prohibited from voting, discouraged from pursuing a career, and expected to devote herself to managing the home.
Time marches on, however, and so does fashion. It’s likely that changes in the culture also contributed to the demise of bird hats.
For one thing, the automobile made large hats impractical. Early motor cars weren’t enclosed, so the problem wasn’t fitting the hat inside, it was keeping it from flying off.
Also, the act of driving probably had an effect in itself. Women were not likely to take the wheel back in the early days of motoring, but, even as passengers, they must’ve felt a sense of liberation from being able to move faster than ever before.
After the first World War, hemlines went up, women got the vote, and hair got shorter. Hair styles like the bob and the pageboy required smaller hats. The cloche hat became all the rage. The one pictured here was based on the style of an aviator hat.
Feathers were no longer necessary to fly.
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