Feather dresses have become very much a part of today’s mainstream fashion. You can find them just as easily on high-end fashion runways as you would on the party scene. Once the preserve of the elite, the feather dress is now more commonplace even among the ordinary citizenry looking to achieve a more daring and elegant look.
However, this widespread popularity and availability of feathers in fashion is not a recent development. Feathers have pride of place when it comes to the history of fashion that dates back well before photography and fashion shows came into existence. Let us look at this intriguing past.
How Feathers Became Fashionable
Feathers as a fashion statement or accessory have long been present throughout history. Ancient Egyptians honoring the goddess Ma’at and Native Americans are amongst the oldest cultures that incorporated feathers in their headdresses.
Ostrich, hawk, and falcon tail feathers were often also used in making crowns and incorporated into artwork depicting different Egyptian deities. Each deity would have a distinctive headdress that helped in differentiating them and in giving a clue as to their powers.
For Native Americans, feathers honored the connection between the wearer of the headdress and the bird from which the feathers came from. Though the particular meaning of the feather headdress could vary between indigenous tribes, they generally symbolized honor, respect, courage, strength, and wisdom. They were used to mark rites of passage, identify high-ranking members of the tribe, and distinguish tribes.
Eagle feathers were and are still considered sacred and used in making war bonnets, with owl and ostrich feathers also often incorporated. The feathers, alongside other aspects of the headdress, were considered to be of great spiritual significance. Different tribes and indigenous peoples developed different styles of headdresses according to their beliefs and the variety of bird species available.
According to scientific research, even the Neanderthals had a liking for the use of long dark feathers, often plucking them from crows, ravens, vultures, and falcons to use as personal ornaments. The more colorful plumage of wood pigeons and bearded lammergeiers was thought to have been used as household decorations. The use of feathers by Neanderthals and native cultures was not surprising given that they relied on nature to meet their needs, including that of clothing.
As the world was explored and become more cultured, plumage became the adornment of choice for those in high society. The rarest of birds that could be harvested for exotic-looking feathers however became highly targeted and led to some species becoming heavily depleted.
During the 12th century, Italians hosted carnival celebrations and masked balls where guests got to wore elaborate masks adorned with feathers that would better disguise their identities. They provided the perfect cover to indulge in all manner of debauchery including gambling and illicit affairs.
Plumage continued to be a popular fashion accessory as the middle ages drew to a close, especially amongst the elite who used them to display their social importance. Though seemingly more associated with secular fashion, the use of plumes also played a role in the religious wars as knights returning from crusades would have them adorn their helmets.
Referred to as panaches, they were used to symbolize their wealth, status, family identity, ethnicity, and more. The use of this regalia continued well into the renaissance era as noblemen engaged in duels would commission fantastic feather designs to be added to the top of their helmets. Ostrich and egret feathers were the most commonly used adornment that was often cut, curled, and dyed in a range of colors for a stunning effect.
Around the same time, Portuguese explorers settling in Brazil introduced carnival traditions to the indigenous people and slaves. Though initially displaying the feathered masks during high society balls, the lower classes gradually adopted the look as part of their celebrations that featured dancing, music, and fantastic costumes. By the 20th century, it led to carnival celebrations being open to all and creating a wonderful opportunity for samba schools to create elaborate feathered costumes for the parades.
Back in Europe, feathers had become increasingly popular amongst the higher classes. Fashion trends had taken hold with people continually seeking to outdo each other. Feathers from ostriches, swans, and peacocks were especially prized by the elite. Even Marie Antoinette and her signature pouf hairstyle helped to stir a craze in the use of accessories like feathers and pearls to adorn the hair.
However, with industrialization taking hold in the 18th century, such luxuries become more accessible to the lower classes who now sought to imitate what the high society had enjoyed.
Feathers became a status symbol resulting in birds being hunted down on a massive scale to feed the appetite of the mass market. Feathered bonnets became a staple in centers of fashion across Europe, Australia, and the Americas. In Australia, the feathers of emus, egrets, lyrebirds, and herons were highly sought after. While these species survived the onslaught, others like the Huia and Great Auk did not.
An outcry from the scientific community and the public led to the passing of conservation laws that would see feathered fashion eventually falling out of favor and the closure of plume markets.
A revival in the interest in feathered hats occurred in the 1930s to 1960s, but the trend never achieved the hype of the past. However, feathers did become more often seen on the red carpet and as an adornment worn by the stars of the black and white to silver screen era. Feathery dresses were used for dramatic effect, with beauties like Zsa Zsa Gabor and Jean Harlow often sporting the style.
Feather boas also became a popular choice by flappers of the Jazz Age, who wore them on their shoulders when they went out dancing. As ethically produced feathers got into the market, flirty and feather dresses began to feature more prominently in fashion lines from the 80s and 90s. It was the perfect style to complete the disco era and runway collections that needed a touch of the voluminous and exotic.
Over the last few decades, feathered clothing has often been seen in music videos, on fashion runways, and red carpets. Just like the feathered bonnets that were inspired by high society over a century ago, these displays have helped encourage even ordinary people to incorporate the style into their everyday wear.
However, unlike in the past when feathers were mainly used in headdresses, now the adornment is incorporated in clothing, including fully covering dresses, jackets, tops, and skirts, along the neckline, hemline, shoulders, and sleeves, and to embellish earrings and shoes.
Another potential reason for feather dresses coming back into fashion is that today’s practices are kinder to the animals involved and to the environment. The feathers themselves are harvested sustainably with many animal rights groups watching the practice of feather harvesting, causing less harm to wild bird populations. Not only that, but feathers of endangered species are now outlawed in many places, helping to ensure those species survival for our future generations. In some situations, synthetic feathers are used to replace real feathers, especially in species of birds that are endangered or species of birds that cannot be farmed sustainable to create enough volume for fashion needs.
Feathers remain a grand and unique fashion trend that fascinates people today almost as much as it did in the past. Only now it is more accessible to everyone and can be incorporated into your attire in a variety of ways. You can find feathered clothing that comes in a variety of styles, colors, and textures.
While for some the cultural and spiritual symbolism remains, for many more, it is the sheer beauty and flair for the dramatic that makes this trend well worth making a part of their wardrobe. Feather dresses may be more in fashion now than ever before, however, feathers in fashion have always been a trend.