collage by monica brand
collage by monica brand
Feathers are the chic nomad’s ultimate muse. To be able to take flight on wings of iridescent plumage would fulfill the fantasy of unfettered freedom that motivates so many who live to travel. The ability to fly is a popular answer to the age-old question: If you had one super power, what would it be? And super powers were exactly what some of the first people to don feathers were after.
In the ancient world many cultures decorated themselves with the feathers of birds in an attempt to harness the magic energy of their flight. In Peru, the Mayan peoples adorned their finely woven straw hats and shields with feathers of the bright and bold birds that soared overhead believing they would be able to absorb the mystical powers of the flying creatures they regarded as deities.
Beyond their mythical powers, feathers are simply objects of profound beauty—a naturally occurring resource that offers color, warmth, sheen, and opulence. Adult birds molt at least once a year- and the feathers we celebrate connect us to the process of shedding and renewal.
Before they were overharvested, the feathers of the most exotic birds would be carefully crafted into fine jewelry. Cut with razor sharp detail the bright blue feathers of the small Kingfisher bird would be set into ornate Chinese hair ornaments. Elaborately built on coiled metal forms, the ornaments produced an enchanting en tremblant quiver with a woman’s every move. In the 18th century fashionable European women decorated their already enormous coiffed hair with giant plumes that took them to even greater heights. By the late19th and early 20th century, women were wearing enormous mounds of feathers on their giant picture hats, sometimes even commissioning milliners to make hats that featured full taxidermy birds.
While our taste for wearing whole birds on our hats may have changed, high fashion is still in love with plumage. Now a luxury item with a limited supply, fine feathers are the stuff couture and high-end ready to wear are made of. The heavy newsstand tomes of fall fashion 2013 are full of feathered clothing.
A Vivienne Westwood coat is collar to cuff and shoulder to hem covered in an airy blanket of black ostrich feathers. An Erdem evening gown is brilliantly layered—a soft cloud of a feathered minidress beneath a floor sweeping shift dress with slits so high in it’s sheer black seams that the feathers peek out from the sides. Christopher Kane has used his keen creative sense to construct applique flowers from feathers shaped into petals—attached to a cashmere sweater for ultimate luxury. Frida Giannini’s Gucci women are festooned with jewel toned feathers sewn strategically into sexy stretch black net for evening. Sarah Burton’s opulent Medieval sleeves are near angel wings, made of heavy white feathers.
Whether on angelic ensembles or sexy evening dresses, feathers are a timeless mark of luxury with an enchanting beauty. And, as with any precious material, the key is to wear feathers with a reverence and respect for the animals that provide them. The true traveler’s heart is in a state of awe at what nature has to offer, and beautiful objects carefully crafted using beautiful feathers can be a totem for that awe—a reminder of just how much beauty the world holds.
~Anna Yanofsky

Anna Yanofsky holds an MA in Fashion and Textile Studies: History, Theory, and Museum Practice from the Fashion Institute of Technology. She currently works at the Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. She is also the editor of the site Exhibiting Fashion.