Wednesday, 28 November 2012

Ostrich Feathers in Fashion

Ostrich Hunt, Etched by Stefano della Bella c. 1654 source

Ostriches have been hunted and farmed for their feathers, skin, oil and meat since Roman times.  Ostrich feathers have been used in fashion for thousands of years and were at one time worth more than their weight in gold.

Golden Gate Ostrich Farm Certificate for 5 Shares of $10 each, issued 26th Nov 1912 source

Ostriches are native to the African continent but are farmed worldwide.  Ostriches are so adaptable that they can be farmed in climates ranging from South Africa to Alaska.  It is thought that ostriches were domesticated at Oudtshoorn- a town on the southern most tip of Africa, where Ostriches roamed the plains  for centuries.   The modern domestic ostrich was bred from a cross between South Africa's indigenous bird, the South African Black, and the Evans-Lovemore strain of Barbary blue-necked ostriches (141 of which were secretly smuggled out of North Africa and brought to Oudtshoorn by a group of adventurers), and farming began in about 1860.

A Poke Bonnet c. 1860, source

Silk dress with ostrich feather trim c. 1875 source

Ostrich feathers in ladies clothing and hats was the height of fashion in Victorian and Edwardian Europe where they were especially popular for use on the latest fashionable hats. 

American silk and wool hat with ostrich feathers c.1910 source

c. 1911, source

A headline inThe New York Times from 1912 read: OSTRICH FEATHERS ONCE MORE IN WIDE USE. The article explained: “For hat trimming one plume, full and long, is considered sufficient, and in almost every instance the tip of the plume is placed toward the back of the hat, or resting at the back of the head.”
Between 1875 and 1880, ostrich  prices reached up to £1000 per breeding pair, and farmers of the region, quickly realised that ostriches were far more profitable than any other activity. Numerous immigrants, particularly the Jews of Eastern Europe and Lithuania, moved to Oudtshoorn, so that it earned the nickname "Little Jerusalem" by 1890.  By 1900 there were over 700,000 birds in captivity world wide, including in Australia and new Zealand

"Ostrich farming in Auckland District. Young Birds inspecting visitors, Helvetia Park, Auckland," 1905, 

 The best plumes are from the male birds were carefully cut, with sharp scissor like tools, and used for women’s hats as well as  capes, hand fans, boas, muffs, and trimmings on a variety of clothing and accessories.  At the peak of their popularity during the “feather fashion craze” of the early 20th century, plumes were found in dozens of sizes, made into fantastic shapes and amazing types. 

Fan of mother of pearl & ostrich feathers c. 1900 source

Fan dancer c. 1910

a Russian singer with Feather boa, c. 1900

South African ostrich feather dusters were developed in Johannesburg, South Africa by missionary, broom factory manager, Harry S. Beckner in 1903. He felt that the Ostrich feathers made a convenient and most efficient tool for cleaning up the machines at the broom factory.  By 1905 the Ostrich Duster was the must have item in many a household and were sold in ever increasing numbers which saw the introduction of the  feather duster salesman!  

Ostriches were also valued for their leather, which meant that in the 18th century they were almost hunted to extinction.  It is claimed that ostriches produce the strongest commercial leather, and it is highly prized for its strength and beauty and is still used today for shoes, purses, wallets, luggage and other small accessories.

Cawston Ostrich Farm,  in South Pasadena, California , just 5km north of downtown Los Angeles,  was opened in 1886 by Edwin Cawston as  America's first ostrich farm, after he imported fifty ostriches from South Africa (although less than half survived the journey).  Ostrich farms soon became popular tourist destinations. Guests could feed the birds and could be taken for ostrich drawn carriage rides or ride on the birds back, and women could buy leather products and feather hats in the farm's shop.

Children in an ostrich pulled cart at the Cawston Ostrich Farm, South Pasadena c. 1925

A thrilling ride at Cawston's c. 1927 source

It was primarily the invention of the motor car and the advent of the First World War that brought the Ostrich Feather Boom Era to an end. Faster open vehicles played havoc with the ladies’ splendid feather decorated fashions and fashion trends in 1914 and onwards were generally more sober and less flamboyant.

The burst of the 'feather bubble' wreaked havoc on thousands of people, particularly, argues Sarah Abrevaya Stein in her  book Plumes: Ostrich Feathers, Jews, and a Lost World of Global Commerce,Jews, such as those of Oudtshoorn and their relatives elsewhere. 

Ostrich feathers did pop up now again after WWI, and examples in fahsion can be found from every decade.  Look at this stunning dress by Louiseboulanger, from 1928, with trim of individual filaments of ostrich plume knotted together to form longer strands, each dyed a different tone for the effect of an ombré cascade.

Dress by Louiseboulanger, c.1928 source

In about 1934 Chanel designed a gown and matching evening cape  in black silk crêpe and embellished with combed ostrich feathers, suitable for a 1930s dance hall or a private cocktail party perhaps.

Chanel, c. 1934 source

Ginger Rogers wore a similar ensemble in white in the musical  "Top Hat" with Fred Astaire in 1935.

Ostrich feather hats, with smaller feathers, were also popular in the 1940s.

American dinner hat, wool with purple ostrich feathers. c. 1942, source
And the fifites loved glamorous feather slippers!

The 1961 French film L'Année dernière à Marienbad (released in the USA as Last Year At Marienbad and in the UK as Last Year in Marienbad)  directed by Alain Resnais heavily featured ostrich feathers, in costumes designed by Chanel.

 Delphine Claire Beltiane Seyrig in  L'Année dernière à Marienbad, source

This dress is by the  House of Dior, designed by Marc Bohan (French, born 1926), c. 1965–68, in yellow silk, with black ostrich feathers, sequins and beads.

House of Dior c. 1960s, source 
Here's a stunning 1979 number by Bill Blass, silk with ostrich feathers.

Bill Blass, c1979 source
Vintage Ostrich feather Dress with paisley pattern, by James Galanos, c. 1980s source
Strangely enough, it is now the car industry that uses the most feathers.  According to BMW's Munich Factory in Germany, the most important part of a cars finish is the paint shop, the cleanest section of the factory.  The workers wear dust-free, lint-free overalls from head to toe, and to get the best finish each car's shell is dusted down by an amazing machine that gently strokes it all over with Ostrich feathers before painting.

There are still many uses for ostrich feathers in fashion around the world.  When I think 'feathers' the Rio Carnival springs to mind, as do Las Vegas showgirls with thier giant feather fans. Feather boas are still popular, and feather trimmings and plumes are still used as accessories in the millinery industry, and on ladies evening gowns. Here is a lovely ensemble from Oscar de la Renta's winter collection 2004/2005, with a subtle ostrich feather hemline.

Oscar de la Renta 2004/5 source

Hilary Swank's Gucci gown at the 2011 Oscars is a lovely example of elegant ostrich feathers.

 And subtle feather use on this cute modern fascinator.

Of course there are always traditional feather fashion, such as the Order of the Thistle with their black velvet hat  trimmed with white ostrich feathers and a black egret or heron feather.

Prince William, Earl of Strathearn, after becoming a Knight of the most ancient and most noble Order of the Thistle

Do you like feathers?

Deb xx

1 comment:

  1. Hello Deb!
    This is post has been a wonderful bounty of information on the Ostrich Feather Industry! I have been greatly educated today! I recreate Victoriand and Edwardian dresses and hats and use lots and lots of vintage ostrich plumes in my millinery hobby! It is fun to learn about the items I use and this article was quite informative! Thank you!


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