2. Fashioning Feathers


In this section of the exhibition we explore the production process involved in ‘fashioning’ feathers, from the harvesting of birds for their feathers on ‘feather farms’, to the crafting of feathers by plumassiers and in plume sweatshops.

With feather fashions as popular as ever we also ask: why do humans continue to be seduced by the allure of feather fashions?


Fortunes were paid by rich individuals for exotic feathered hats during the height of the ‘plume boom’.  Ostentatiously feathered hats could command as much as $150 in the early Edwardian era.[1] Edwardian milliners were masters in the art of excess and the flamboyant hats of the era adorned with not just the plumes, but the heads, wings, and sometimes whole stuffed birds, are a clear example of this. Robin W. Doughty in Feather Fashions and Bird Preservation presents a highly detailed chart of the feathers fashions recorded in Harper’s Bazaar between 1875-1900. An 1875 edition of Harper’s Bazaar contained an article discussing the then emerging fad and explains how the birds were used:

“The entire bird is used, and is mounted on wires and springs that permit the head and wings to be moved about in the most natural manner.”[2]

Dyed Black Greater Bird of Paradise Millinery specimen mounted on silk-plush hat c 1910

Birds of all kinds were used for both their feather and bodily appearance. Ostrich, heron, peacock and bird of paradise were enormously popular, but common garden fowl, such as pigeon, turkey and goose were also used. Feathers were put through several stages of processing before they were ready to be attached to hats. In the final forms they were known to the trade as plumes, pompons, aigrettes, breasts, wings, pads, bands (that would to encircle the crown or to outline the brim), and quills. The table below (taken from the 1912 edition of Millinery by Charlotte Rankin) illustrates what kinds of feathers were made up into each of the various forms of ‘branching’ or ‘pasting’:

Wing            Breast            Pad            Band            Pompon            Sweeping Aigrette

Ostrich            X                                                  X            X                        X                  X

Vulture            X                                                  X            X                        X                  X

Paradise         X                                                                 X                        X                  X

Numadie        X

Gourah*         X            X                                                  X

Heron             X            X                                                                                                  X

Egret               X                                                                                                                 X

Peacock         X             X                                                  X                        X                 X

Pheasant                       X                                                  X                        X                 X

Parrot            X              X                                                  X                                            X

Guinea-fowl  X            X                                     X          X                        X                 X

Pigeon            X            X

Goose              X            X                                     X          X                        X †              X

Duck               X            X                                     X

Turkey            X            X                                     X                                     X                X

Barnyard Fowl           X                                     X

“Spanish Coq”            X                                                                             X                X

Gourah; plain, the female; Imperial (with eye in plumage), the male.

†Soft side feathers. The larger breast features of the goose are technically called “Nagoire.”

Advert for The Parisian Hat co. in the London Saturday Review 1864.


The thirst for exotic ornament among fashionable women in the metropoles of Europe and America prompted a bustling global trade in ostrich feathers that flourished from the 1880s until the First World War. South African ostrich plumes, due to their particularly sumptuous nature, were so in demand during this period that their value per pound was almost equal to diamonds.[3]

Advert for Ostich Farm Jacksonville, Florida © Duke University Digital Collection

In ostrich farms, conducted mainly in South Africa, Florida and in California during the plume boom, the birds were denuded of their feathers at regular intervals. The first feathers were plucked when the bird was a year old, and then every succeeding year when the bird had grown back full mating plumes. Three hundred feathers could be ‘harvested’ from a single ostrich in its lifetime. Unusually the feathers on both the male and female were equally valuable, as they were mostly dyed before being put on the market. Similarly all of the ostrich plumes of commerce were really double plumes, made by uniting two of the natural feathers, so as to appear fuller.


To meet all the feather-processing demands of milliners and ladies of fashion feather workshops, known as plumassiers, opened. In these workshops feathers were dyed and made into arrangements from boas to aigrettes to tufts and sprays for both the worlds of fashion and interiors. The Encyclopedia Britannica’s entry on ‘Ornamental Feathers’ from 1901 explains what the ‘arts’ of the plumassier encompassed:

“The art of the plumassier embraces the cleaning, bleaching, dying, curling and making up of ostrich and other plumes and feathers.”

In the early part of the 20th century there were over 425 feather makers (plumassiers) in Paris, the centre of the trade at the time. While plumassier workshops in Paris concentrated on the preparation and handling of very fine and valuable exotic feathers demanded by high-end modistes, or milliners, New York’s entrepreneurial Lower East side fostered the emergence of pop-up plumage sweatshops.

Millinery on Division Street, NY (ca. 1907-ca. 1933) Photo: L. W. Hine © NYPL

Advert for “French Feather Dyer and Dresser”, New York © Duke University Digital Collections

By 1900, As Stein outlines in her 2008 book Plumes…,  the North American millinery industry employed 83,000 people  (which equated at the time to 1 of every 1000 Americans).[4]
In the oppressive New York plumage sweatshops young women and girls prepared feathers for sale, usually for vey low wages. Stein also states the women and girls were also prone to tuberculosis, due to the dust and fluff. One of the most onerous jobs was ‘willowing’, which consisted of lengthening the short strands, called flues, of inferior feathers by tying on one, two or three flues until the feather has the desired depth and grace. A poem from the Sorrowful Rhymes of Working Children 1911 underlines the exploitation of children employed in doing “finishing work” for feather manufacturers:

How doth the manufacturer

Improve the ostrich tail?

By willowing the scraggy ends

Until they’re fit for sale.

How cheerfully he sits and smiles

Throughout the livelong day,

While children knot the tiny flues

And make the plumes that pay.

The following series of archival photographs depict women working in plumage sweatshops in New York in the early decades of the 20th Century. The photographs, taken from Lewis W. Hine’s photographic series documenting working conditions in New York, 1905-1939, are used here to outline the various processes involved in feather-making.

Generally feathers were bleached and dyed, then starched and willowed, and finally curled.

Willowing, stringing and steaming feathers in New York plume sweatshop (ca. 1907-ca. 1933) © NYPL Digital Collection

The photograph above depicts the willowing, shaping and steaming of feathers (ca. 1907-ca. 1933). The two girls working at the table lit by the window light are willowing feathers, while the boy to the right is steaming the feathers to curl them, using the steam from a large kettle continually on the boil. It appears the young girl in the forefront of the photo is preparing and ‘shaping’ full wings as millinery ornaments. There were two types of wings being made at the time—the natural and the manufactured.

The made or imitation wings were of many styles and shapes and changed with every season. They were made of real feathers glued on foundations. The imitation wings were very much more fragile than the natural wings and for this reason they were usually wired on the under side with fine, strong wire in such a way that the wire did not show yet still supported the manufactured feather structure.

Cluttered workroom in a New York feather sweatshop (ca. 1907-ca. 1933) Photo © L. W. Hine/
NYPL Digital Collection

In the cluttered workroom pictured above the women are most likely working on willowing plumes and making hat trimmings out of feather scraps. Much ingenuity was displayed in the making of ‘ospreys’ (composite plumes), with the general result of producing the appearance of full, rich, and long feathers from inferior varieties and from scraps and fragments of ostrich feathers. The women working in the sweatshops were so practiced in the art of fabricating imitation plumes that only an experienced person was able to detect the fabrication.

Process of feather making in plume sweatshop, N.Y. (ca. 1907-ca. 1933) © NYPL Digital Collection

In the photograph above the young women on the left are willowing ostrich plumes. The willowing of ostrich feathers was very common, so as to ensure plumes fitted the desired depth and length expected by milliners and department stores and their customers. The willowing of feathers was so in demand that often women would take home large bags of feathers to willow at home.

In the process of willowing, each tiny feathery fiber is lengthened by having several lengths of the same kind knotted to it, a tedious, fine and demanding process. The result is a plume with long, sweeping feathers such as the finished plumes on the far left.

The woman on the right appears to be working on bleached feathers and the rows of bottles above her head indicate the related processes of treating and dyeing feathers. Naturally coloured feathers were bleached white before they were dyed so they would take the intended colour better (this is why the feathers of the naturally white Snowy Egret were so in demand as they side-stepped this stage of the process).

Naturally white feathers by comparison were simply washed in bundles of hot soapy water, and then run through pure warm water. If the end color was to be light, the dye liquor could be applied cold, but darker shades required a cold water dye-bath first, and then slow heating until the water was very hot—though never boiling – so that the feather would take the dye.

The quill and butt, or end of the feather, were dyed first. The tip and flues were dyed after because the former parts could take up to twenty or thirty minutes to absorb the color, whereas the tip and flues would take the dye in two minutes. If the stem did not take the color thoroughly enough, it often had to be painted afterwards.

The black dyeing of feathers was apparently the trickiest. Using logwood dye, which was considered the best for the purpose, took about six days. Feathers were sometimes also painted with oil paint and gasoline, but the color often rubbed off. Another undesired effect of this method was that the thick oil paint often plastered the tiny barbules together.

Feather making (ca. 1907-ca. 1933) © NYPL Digital Collection

The photo above depicts rows of starched feathers ready for willowing and shaping. After being dyed feathers were thoroughly rinsed in warm water and then laid on paper to dry and covered with powdered dry starch to fluff the feathers again after the dying process. It was then the job of the young women pictured to either willow or shape the feathers depending on what type of feathers or trimmings they were working on. The majority of women photographed above were most likely working on the willowing of feathers.

The young bespectacled women to the front of the photograph, appears to be paring down the shafts to give the feathers greater flexibility. The barbs could then be curled by drawing them singly over the face of a blunt knife or by the application of a heated iron (what the man in the back-right of the photo appears to be working on). Ostrich feathers frequently had to be treated with acid and glycerin to give the flue greater flexibility. When so treated they were generally used in aigrette form or branched in some novel way. This method was known in the trade as ‘burnt ostrich’.

Making trimmings, New York Plumassier (ca. 1907-ca. 1933) © NYPL Digital Collection

The photograph above depicts women fashioning feathers for higher-end milliners and department stores, focusing less on producing bulk and more on making the finishing touches to various hat trimmings, such as plumes, pompons, aigrettes, breasts, wings, pads, and bands and boas.

The photographic series above depicting women at work in plumage sweatshops are taken from Lewis W. Hine’s photographic series documenting working conditions in New York, 1905-1939. Hine was an American sociologist and photographer who used his camera as a tool for social reform. His photographs, highlighting the plight of children and immigrants working in Now York sweatshops, were instrumental in changing the child labor laws in the United States.

However even with mounting pressure from workers rights movements and conservation lobbies, the plume industry stood fast against claims of worker exploitation and animal cruelty and offered the public false assurances. For instance industry officials claimed that the bulk of feather collection was limited to shed plumes, however in truth, those ‘dead plumes’ brought only one fifth of the price of the live unblemished ones.


Yet as the new more enlightened century unfolded, protests began to be heard.  In America the Audubon society and in the UK the RSPB (Royal Society for the Protection of Birds) campaigned to persuade ladies not to use plumage for their own adornment and to ban both national and the international plum trade. One writer in 1875 declared that the beauty of these birds “tempts the most tender-hearted to condone the practice. It was reckoned in 1895 that some twenty to thirty-million dead birds are imported annually to supply the demands of murderous millinery.”


However while ‘murderous millinery’ campaigns contributed to making many of the more objectionable feathered fashions defunct, feathers continued to be used in fashion throughout the 20th century and continue to play a sinister and confounding role in fashion today. For example, in Alexander McQueen’s Spring 2008 collection the theme of birds—symbolic of his late muse Isabella Blow—held the show together.

Bird creation from McQueen’s 2008 spring collection which was a tribute to his late muse Isabella Blow. Image ©

McQueen’s 2008 spring collection was a tribute to Blow, the woman who discovered him and faithfully wore his clothes (and Philip Treacy’s hats) in their most extreme manifestations. Whatever the personal inspiration for his 2008 spring collection, it more broadly reflects the intimate relations between birds and women (and between shared attitudes towards them) that have been manufactured through the fashion industry and society more generally over the centuries.

A cacophony of stuffed animals spot-lit onto a wall to form a portrait silhouette of thelate fashion icon Isabella Blow has been acquired by the National Portrait Gallery.

Famed for his misogyny, McQueen frequently dressed up his models to appear as living or dead birds and often incorporated actual avian parts into his, and Treacy’s accompanying, creations, in what he said was a play on the misogynistic ‘murderous millinery’ campaigns of the past. Knowingly or not McQueen and Treacy’s avian inspired creations continue to reproduce the same issues to do with dress, gender, distribution of wealth and power that the feather fashions of the past were entangled within.

Mcqueen’s Bird Dress from his autumn/winter 2009 collection. Photo: The Independent

Making Lagerfeld’s tutu at Lemarie. Photograph: Xiang Sun

Karl Lagerfeld’s costume design for the role of The Dying Swan (played by prima ballerina Elena Glurdjidze) in a recent collaboration between Chanel and the English National Ballet similarly poses interesting questions of the roles of women in society and art as producers and consumers. More than 100 hours of work went into making the specially crafted tutu, many of these by women artisans at Lemarié, the Chanel studio that is devoted entirely to plumassiers, or feather specialists.

Founded in 1875, Maison Lemarié has enjoyed a kind of legendary reputation among plumassiers for both their exacting standards and their long-standing relationship with Chanel. It is now one of the last remaining establishments of its kind anywhere in the world. In what can only be described as highly concentrated and minutely detailed work, the plumassiers at Lemarie (many of them women) painstakingly treat, dye and apply the fragile feathers, which frequently embellish haute couture garments and stage costumes.

Mindful of preserving this rare art (in 1919 there were 425 plumassiers plying their trade in Paris, in 1939 there were 88, in 1980 there were 5 and today there are only 3 including Maison Lemarié), Chanel purchased a controlling interest in Maison Lemarié in 1997. As Marine Pacault’s photographic series “Lemarié, le dernier” attests this heritage consists of the archives, the memories and the skills of the artisans working there. Then there are the treasures lying dormant in large drawers:

“Stacks of time-warped wooden boxes and brown-paper parcels are exotically labeled “Paradise”, “Ara” or “Heron”, feathers from protected species today that have been sitting waiting to be worn, some for 100 years.”

Packets of feathers at plumassier Lemarie Photo ©

Packets of preserved feathers at plumassier Lemarie in 2009 Photo © Marine Pacault

Genevieve Renaud, director general of Lemarie, explains that Lemarie acquired many of these feathers by buying out companies that closed and that “today we tend to use ostrich, rooster, turkey, goose, guinea-fowl – all the birds of the farmyard.” Still, Lemarie is the go-to destination for designers who find farmyard feathers cannot recreate the effect of the more sought after endangered species. In 1987, for example, Lemarie used 5,000 bird of paradise feathers from their precious reserves for in a single dress.


A 1969 Yves Saint Laurent couture mini dress made of bird of paradise feathers. Photo © The MET Costume Insitute

Echoing the feather-lust for the rarest and most expensive plumes at the height of the plume boom, the increased rarity and expense of endangered and protected species in today’s fashion market ensures they remain sought after (and fought over) by the world’s chicest fashion houses and designers. While the more reputable fashion houses insist they source such feathers from antique feather dealers such as Lemarie, demand for fine feathers generates a black market trade in endangered and protected species like the birds of paradise who, if the latest reports prove accurate, are now said to be on a ‘flight to oblivion’.  

With this in mind and returning to Karl Lagerfeld’s costume design for the role of The Dying Swan, an interesting parallel emerges between the dance of The Dying Swan and the slow death of the plume trade.  When prima ballerina Elena Glurdjidze came to the Channel Head Quarters for her fitting she did an impromptu performance of The Dying Swan for Lagerfeld (who recorded the performance on his iphone). In an interview with Jess Cartner-Morley for the Guardian Lagerfeld reflected on the performance:

“Mediocre classical ballet is the worst thing in the world. The worst! If it’s not perfect, you want to laugh. If it’s not a dying swan, it’s a struggling goose. Hmm? But down there, in that room, everyone was under the spell of it, because it was perfect.” Of course, he adds, it’s a fantasy. “Swans, they are the meanest animals in the world, you know. I had problems with them as a child. They hate children. I was caught by one, so I know. The idea of swans is lovely, and they have a beautiful shape, but they seem more romantic than they in fact are. I don’t think really they die like this. They just drop dead, hmm? But who wants to see that?”

Karl Lagerfeld, creative director at Chanel, watches Elena Glurdjidze dance in the costume he designed. Photo © Xiang Sun

And this is precisely why designers and the buying public care not to give thought to the lives and deaths of the birds whose feathers embellish their creations and bodies. While plumassiers like Lemarie are enabled, by the likes of Channel, to bow out gracefully in the style and colour of the feathers used for Lagerfled’s costume, which were said to invoke “the pink light of a beautiful sunset; the end of the day” – the birds that supply the feathers apparently simply ‘drop dead’ out of sight and out of mind. 

Click to see “A Ballet for Karl Lagerfeld“: 


Text by Dr Merle Patchett

Creative Commons License
Fashioning Feathers by Dr Merle Patchett is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

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[1]  Moore-Colyer, R. J. (2000) ‘Feathered Women and Persecuted Birds; The Struggle Against the Plumage Trade c. 1860-1922′, Rural History, 11/1, pp. 57-73.

[2] Doughty, R. W. (1975) Feather Fashions and Bird Preservation: a Study in Nature Protection. University of California Press.

[3] Stein (2008) Plumes: Ostrich Feathers, Jews, and a Lost World of Global Commerce. Yale University Press.

[4] Stein (2008) Plumes: Ostrich Feathers, Jews, and a Lost World of Global Commerce. Yale University Press.

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  1. […] of birds of paradise in their natural habitats courtesy of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. Fashioning Feathers – this space explores the production processes involved in ‘fashioning’ feathers, from […]

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