Exhibition

Bird of Prey: the use of exotic feathers in fashion

Drawing of a Bird of Paradise by Buffon in Oeuvres complètes de Buffon, 8th and 9th part: Histoire Naturelle des oiseaux, Brussels, Adolphe Deros, 1852

Drawing of a Bird of Paradise by Buffon in Oeuvres complètes de Buffon, 8th and 9th part: Histoire Naturelle des oiseaux, Brussels, Adolphe Deros, 1852

The Birds of Paradise exhibition has many different types of feathers on show, from different bird species and from different periods in time.

Bird of Prey, Punch Limited, UK

Bird of Prey, Punch Limited, UK

The use of exotic feathers peaked at the end of the nineteenth century because of the popularity of feathers as fashionable hat ornaments. Wild ostrich feathers, heron, peacock and bird of paradise feathers were very costly and elegant and thus the ideal status symbol for a lady of style. Because of this popularity, some bird species became endangered and animal rights protection groups were founded, especially in London, where most feathers were traded. Feathers in fashion are hence at the origins of animal rights organisations.

Ostrich Farming in South Africa, The Illustrated London News, March 30 1878, Mary Evans Picture Library

Ostrich Farming in South Africa, The Illustrated London News, March 30 1878, Mary Evans Picture Library

In Paris, where the feathers are used in the fashion industry, the plumassiers (feather workers), like Maison Lemarié, refined their dyeing and processing techniques to imitate the protected feather species. This way, contemporary fashion creations only contain feathers that were collected in an ethical, non-intrusive way.

Alexander McQueen by Sarah Burton, Dress with bodice in goose feathers and skirt in ostrich feathers, S/S 2011, Photo: Etienne Tordoir - Catwalkpictures.com

Alexander McQueen by Sarah Burton, Dress with bodice in goose feathers and skirt in ostrich feathers, S/S 2011, Photo: Etienne Tordoir – Catwalkpictures.com

When they do contain protected feathers, these are historical, one-of-a-kind samples. The historical pieces in the exhibition are sometimes made with feathers from endangered species and tell the history of the feather as a fashionable status symbol that gave rise to the protection of exotic bird species.