Women Rise Up for Cruelty-Free Hats

1885 satin evening dress embellished with swans’ down. Collection: Brooklyn Museum collection, The Met.

While early 20th century American women were still lobbying for the vote, activists first scored a victory for the environment – convincing the United States government to change the laws to protect wildlife and lobby the millinery industry to remove the mania for birds and feathers from the fashion equation.f

The New-York Historical Society’s exhibition, Feathers: Fashion and the Fight for Wildlife, running through July 15, presents a neat three-gallery exhibition that tells a forgotten tale of the citizen uprising and activism that led to a major environmental win for wildlife. Take a look at some of the items in our Flickr album.

The exhibition uses its Audubon watercolor collection to maximum effect.  The final gallery of the show displays JJ’s life-sized depictions of gorgeous water birds in their native habitats, providing an emotional counter-punch to the dozens of disturbing 19th-century hats, muffs, fans, and headgear adorned with plumage of the same creatures in the first gallery.

Must-have 1894 accessory, a gold aigrette with diamonds and feathers from breeding Great Egrets. Collection: MCNY

The show tells the story of the fashion feather craze that swept the world of high society in the 1880s and 1890s across America and Europe – a mania that resulted in large-scale destruction of birds, nesting grounds, and habitats. Destined for millinery shops in major cities, birds were shot and nests ransacked for exotic plumage, fluffy down, and entire bodies of wild and domestic birds that could be artfully arranged across shoulders and on brims.

Aigrettes, a delicate diamond-encrusted tiara, with wisps of egret feathers, were fashion accessories in extremely high demand. Hunters laid in wait for Great Egret males during mating season just to get these little wisps for the European and American trade.

Audubon’s portrait of the majestic male hangs in the final gallery. Its label states that in 1902, London alone received shipments of 1.5 tons of this wispy plumage, representing a sacrifice of about 200,000 birds and perhaps three times that number of trampled Great Egret eggs.

Audubon’s life-size 1821 watercolor of the then-endangered Great Egret. Collection: NYHS

Audubon’s Birds of the World could only be purchased by super-wealthy patrons, but smaller, individual prints of the massive, famous set were widely available and people loved them. Armed with binoculars and inspired by Audubon’s journeys, societies of bird enthusiasts took to pastures and woods to document and enjoy local species across the eastern United States from the 1880s on.

Gallery 2 tells the stories of these early environmental leaders, such as publisher George Grinnell who pioneered Audubon Magazine and Mabel Osgood Wright of Connecticut who used photography to document local bird species and educate others about them.

But even as they enjoyed the diversity of bird species around them, bird lovers, scientists, and environmentalists of the 1890s were horrified by the magnitude of the destruction.  Every fashionable woman on the street was wearing or carrying some accessory with a bird, bird part, or feather. The magnitude of the problem, they knew, was unsustainable.

Contemporary reproduction of an early 20th c. Audubonnet, which uses ribbons, not feathers

They faced daunting odds, since the millinery trade employed thousands, retail giants were benefiting, and the average fashionista simply didn’t want to know.

Emboldened by the activist strategies surrounding suffrage, the concerned women and men protested, lobbied, and offered solutions. One solution was the Audubonnet, a wildlife-friendly design approach that advocated dramatic ribbons and bows to replace wildlife on hats.

Copy of a 1900s newspaper ad selling featherless ladies’ hats.

By 1904, the fashion and retail pendulum swung in favor of the activists. Saks and Gimbels started promoting Audubonnets, and the industry agreed to abandoned the use of exotics and restrict itself to domestic birds and fowl, such as pigeons, doves, crows, hawks, peacocks, turkeys, ducks, and the like.

Buyers felt good about moving away from destructive fashion and sporting eco-friendly looks. The ribbon and artificial flower trade boomed. By 1918, the Migratory Bird Treaty Act passed, banning bird hunting and killing and protecting all bird parts, feathers, nests, and eggs of hundreds of species.

Naturalists, scientists, activists, the Supreme Court, and Theodore Roosevelt all played a part in shifting environmental consciousness and politics of the time – a larger story than this exhibition tells but one that’s outlined in the first-floor TR galleries across the street at the American Museum of Natural History.

Audubon’s 1833 life-size watercolor of the Common Eider, once endangered by down gatherers disturbing eggs and nests in the wild. Commercial farms now raise them and collect their down.

The AMNH’s historic 1902 diorama of the Pelican Island water bird habitat, created to inspire New York audiences to protect endangered wildlife, is long gone from the museum.

But what a pleasure to see the NYHS Audubon watercolors continuing to do the job that JJ intended them to do — amaze, inspire, and bring the wilderness and the birds he loved to life on Central Park West.

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