Exhibition

Chanel and the feather as a sign of modernity

Appliqué of feathers of the Rhea (small ostrich) and cock feathers for Chanel Haute Couture S/S 2013, by Maison Lemarié, Paris. Photo: Vincent Lappartient for Maison Lemarié

Appliqué of feathers of the Rhea (small ostrich) and cock feathers for Chanel Haute Couture S/S 2013, by Maison Lemarié, Paris. Photo: Vincent Lappartient for Maison Lemarié

Since feathers are considered a fragile material, and expensive when coming from exotic birds, they used to be shown only as a crown on top of the hairdo, as a head plume. In the twentieth century, the great couturiers gave it a new breath of life by exploiting a rare quality, its mobility, its reactivity to the slightest turbulence of the air, a true sign of freedom. The feather’s conquest of allure has gradually taken place from the 1920s, under the impetus in particular of Coco Chanel.

Initially reserved for the hat, it finally invaded the entire outfit, taking in turn an allure that was provocative, surrealist, feminine, feminist, luxurious, quirky, day-to-day or spectacular. Its fragility and its price initially made it an eloquent symbol of luxury and singular elegance. If, with hats becoming increasingly rare, the feather has gradually lost its distinctive significance, it will find other nuances in the celebration of the excellence of haute couture and a multi-faceted femininity.

Mlle Gabrielle Dorziat wearing one of Chanel's first hats, in Les Modes, nr. 137, May 1912. Erfhoedbibliotheek Hendrik Consience, Antwerp, catalogue nr. B 38257

Mlle Gabrielle Dorziat wearing one of Chanel’s first hats, in Les Modes, nr. 137, May 1912. Erfhoedbibliotheek Hendrik Consience, Antwerp, catalogue nr. B 38257

‘The women whom I saw at the races were wearing enormous pies on their heads, monuments made of feathers, enriched by fruit and aigrettes, Gabrielle Chanel remoistened in her confessions to Paul Morand. Despite that aversion to ornaments that made women look like circus horses, Chanel began as a milliner.
Her hats were immediately identified as a new style. Worn by the actress Gabrielle Dorziat, they were characterized by their simplicity of form, precursor of the ‘poverty chic destitution’, which the couturiere promoted. A journalist noted: ‘Her black hats adorned with superb aigrettes, with which she embellished the beauty of the exquisite actress, have an allure which is at the same time rich and simple, and of a very finely Parisian genre.’ Instead of the decorative overload that characterized the millinery compositions of her time, she offered the simplicity of a single feather, as a simple, effective and graphic fashion gesture. A single feather, aigrette or ostrich plume would triumphantly enhance the severity of the construction.

The hat is the pedestal of a feather which signs the spirituality of a woman marching on towards modernity. Another sign of modernity, the feather is no longer only employed as a decoration of the head. Armed with large fantails of ostrich feathers or almost fluorescent colors, women went out in dancing dresses and coats trimmed with feathers. An alternative to the decoration of fringes, those feather decorations were the indispensable testamentary corollaries of the ‘roaring twenties’ immoderate taste for parties, night clubs, tangos and Charlestons. The feather, like the fringes moved to the frenzied rhythm of a period that was intoxicated by jazz and the finest Champagne.

Chanel, Haute Couture A/W 2004-2005. Ensemble consisting of a tweed vest with feathers embroidered in a braid, a long strapless dress with fine mousse line shoulder traps and a sur-jupe in silk pleaded mousse line decorated with ruche feathers. Comma-formed cap with feathers and a mousse line flower. Photo: Monica Ho

Chanel, Haute Couture A/W 2004-2005. Ensemble consisting of a tweed vest with feathers embroidered in a braid, a long strapless dress with fine mousse line shoulder traps and a sur-jupe in silk pleaded mousse line decorated with ruche feathers. Comma-formed cap with feathers and a mousse line flower. Photo: Monica Ho

Feathers weighed down Chanel’s dancing dresses, her concession to that gaiety of the 1920s. The couturier was to keep this taste for feathers but to a lesser extent, reduced to a plume, on her hats of the 1930s and, at the collars and the wrists, on her suits of the 1960s.

(this text is an excerpt from the catalogue Birds of Paradise. Feathers and Plumes in Fashion, ISBN: 978 94 014 1546 0, published by Lannoo)