Birds of a Feather Trim Hats

Lady Wears Hat Trimmed with Stuffed BirdMary Reporting. My mother’s mother, called Grandy by her five grandchildren, loved hats, particularly wide-brimmed, plumed and variously ribboned ones. She rarely left the house without one. As the family story goes, when I was three, I eyed my grandmother in a wide-brimmed hat decorated with a stuffed bird nestled in a circle of tulle and announced I would sit next to “Bird-hatted Grandy.”

Grandy’s hat, thank heavens, belonged to the era of artificial birds as trim, not real ones.

But in the 1880s, fashionable hats often featured stuffed birds mounted on their crowns or brims. Those hats that didn’t exhibit a whole bird or several birds often flaunted bird feathers. Ostrich and peacock were particularly popular.

Then, as now, there were those who didn’t approve of the use of animals to satisfy fashion’s dictates. In 1886, Frank Chapman, an ornithologist from the American Museum of Natural History, wrote a letter to the editors of Forest and Stream to call their attention to the destruction of birds for millinery purposes.

On one afternoon walk through the uptown shopping district in New York City, Chapman recorded a list of native birds seen on ladies’ hats. He counted 700 hats, 542 on which feathers or entire birds perched. The most popular birds were the waxwing, 23; the golden-winged woodpecker, 21; common tern, 21; quail, 16; snow bunting, 15. He noted these numbers were small because “in most cases mutilation rendered identification impossible.”

Cruelties of fashion, 1883From Chapman’s observations, of the 158 feather-less hats, 72 were worn by young or middle-aged ladies; 86 by ladies in mourning or elderly ladies.

Renee Desselle, heroine of our first romance novel, A Gentleman Surrenders, is one such young lady. A designer, she trims hats with bird feathers, but she thinks the idea of whole birds as decoration is loathsome.  In this excerpt, she and a client look through an issue of Godey’s Lady’s Book and discuss the latest bird-on-hat style:

“My goodness, these hats, Renee. I just don’t know. Here’s a black straw for next spring.” Madame Loubiere read the caption beneath the illustration: “Trimmed with grosgrain, feathers, and a large bird.” She grimaced. “Heavens, there’s a whole stuffed bird balanced on the brim.”

Renee shook her head. “Absurd, isn’t it? Ladies have been wearing feathers in their hats for years. I suppose someone in Paris decided to take the custom to extremes.”

“That’s not for me. I have three canaries, you know. What would the poor things think if they saw me with a dead bird sewn on my hat?”

“They’d be horrified,” Renee said with a smile. “I find stuffed birds on a hat abhorrent myself. It’s odd, isn’t it, that it’s fashionable to keep canaries as pets, yet wear birds on a hat.”

Photos are courtesy of commons.wikimedia.org/wiki. In the first photo, a fashionable lady of the 1880s wears a hat trimmed with a whole bird. The second photo is titled: “The Cruelties of fashion: fine feathers make fine birds.” From Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, Nov. 10, 1883.

To see portraits of beautiful women in fine hats circa, 1880s-1929, visit: http://bit.ly/1dQNBCn

  2Comments

  1. Julie Clemmens   •  

    I’m a history buff and I follow this site all the time. Ursula, you’ve shocked me! Can you imagine wearing a DEAD STUFFED BIRD on your head? Now, I like hats more than I like birds, but this is extreme! Thanks for sharing!
    Julie

    • ursula lecoeur   •  

      I’m horrified, too. Fashion makes strange demands on women at times, but this era’s hat decorations had to be one of the worst.

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