BIRDS OF PARADISE – PLUMAGE & FEATHERS IN FASHION

Birds of a feather flock together in a new exhibit at MOMU  Mode Museum, or Museum of Fashion in Antwerp, Belgium. Feathers and exotic plumage have been used for centuries to decorate the garments of royalty: Egypt’s Pharoah’s, China’s Emperors and Empresses, the Tribal Chiefs of Africa and South America, and the nobility and Kings and Queens of Europe. There is something grand and magical about feathers, not only in their outward beauty, but in their metaphorical meaning as the very object of flight. They grace the bodies of angels and it is said that if you find a feather, an Angel is trying to communicate with you. Paleontologists’  continue to discover them on new Dinosaurs species whose modern relatives live today as birds, and are some of the most colorful, alluring and exotic animals in the world. Their iridescent hue’s shimmer and glow with intesnity, their complex patterns camouflage, confuse, and seem to defy possibility, while their brilliant colors show natures true alchemy. This spring/summer from March 20 to August 24, MOMU pays tribute to birds, their plumage, and to the designers who have used them as a means of expression decorating clothing and accessories from Couture and Designer collections in a new exhibit titled “BIRDS OF PARADISE: PLUMES & FEATHERS IN FASHION”.

According to Curator Karen Van Godtsenhoven the importance of feathers in fashion dates back over centuries, but seems to have grown in prominence when Elizabeth I wore them woven into garments and accessories, and carried them as fans. They were also popular at the French Court where they were often used as hair ornaments, decorated hats, fans, capes, and cloaks. They became more widely used in the 19th century as the civilized world expanded. With new and exotic areas of the globe being annexed, and added to the British Empire, Victorian explorers discovered new species of wild animals and birds that they never knew existed, and they began to collect their findings bringing them back to England. As a result taxidermy became the rage, and animals and birds of all sorts, and species, were brought back to civilization to be stuffed and put on display, or placed under glass domes and bell jars, becoming personal parlor exhibits for the cultured and accomplished.

The trend expanded to fashion as the women of the era showed off their exotic feathered accessories as a sign of status, wealth, luxury, and opulence. No woman of means ever went out without a hat, and those hats were most often decorated or finished with feathers and plumes. Sometimes entire birds appeared, stuffed, with their wings spread wide, and their tails standing tall or trailing as they were perfectly perched on the brim. or crown of an important hat. It was so ubiquitous a feature of the feminine wardrobe that many bird species were decimated by the trend. “It’s funny to think, but the idea of animal rights in some ways started with these hats because some birds ended up as protected species” said Karen Van Godtsenhoven.

The influence of feathers fueled fashion like a fever spreading like wildfire that began expanding. showing up on stoles, trimming gloves, capes, coats, and decorating shoes, and handbags. It softly fluttered on fans that swayed back and forth to ward off the heat; waved by delicate well heeled hands. Cottage industries developed that specialized in procuring, preserving, and weaving feathers into elaborate patterned embroideries and trims. Wealthy women of means would fill their time collecting domes filled with exotic taxidermy, often featuring animals and birds that moved in automation. A key turned at the back would set the birds flitting and jumping from branch to branch. Collections of rare and exotic birds that otherwise would never meet, shared space under a dome creating a world of it’s own. A beautiful and indepth look into this phenomena is available in a book titled: “UNDER GLASS: A VICTORIAN OBSESSION”  by John Whitenight.

Feathers found their way into the fashions of the 1920’s where they evoked a newly found sense of glamour. Plumes were piled high on exaggerated collars and cuffs, swept across skirts, or streamed the hemlines of evening gowns. They decorated turbans, the ever popular cloche, and very often unique varieties accented a beaded headband like an exclamation point. They spoke the language of sensuality trimming sleeves and necklines creating a scintillating new mood in lingerie. Wisps of individual ostrich fronds were found softly shifting on a sheer slip or filmy negligee. A pouf of swans down accented the instep of satin slippers. Hollywood picked up on the style and created personal signatures for early movie stars like Gloria Swanson, Anna May Wong, and Nazimova. The trend continued into the 30’s and 40’s adding an over-the-top glamorous aura to Hollywood’s elite: Marlene Dietrich, Greta Garbo, Joan Crawford, and Jean Harlow. On display in the exhibit is the spectacular and sumptuous Swans Down coat worn by Marlene Dietrich in stage performances around the world.

The popularity of feathers was directly linked to their ability to impart nobility, elegance, lightness, fragility, and rarity while at the same time transferring those qualities to the wearer. They also added a sense of fragility, suggesting a woman has the same qualities of a bird, seen as a beautiful, innocent, free creature that moves with grace in motion. As Ms. Van Godtsenhoven said of the exhibit ” The rarity and beauty of birds is also something that gets transposed to women wearing feathers: with our title “Birds of Paradise”, we don’t just mean the bird, but also the women wearing feathered dresses”. Different designers did different things with feathers. and many showed their signature and mastery through application, and what they did with them. Coco Chanel used very graphic heron feathers, so called aigrettes, as a sign of modernism. Dior used dyed feathers as a tool of matching elegance, and femininity. Christobal Balenciaga made bold voluminous and abstract feathered shapes that were avant-garde and opulent in his time.  Ms Godtsenhoven went on to say that “To Yves Saint Laurent feathers signified liberty, and today many designers like Alexander McQueen/Sarah Burton, but also Raf Simons at Dior, and Ann Demeulemeester use allot of feathers in their work, in varied techniques and shapes”, “Nowadays feathers also have an erotic symbolism and can be used to create a modern “femme fatale”.

The exhibit itself is not large in scale, but rather jewel-like, paying special attention to unique and select pieces that show the extraordinary workmanship and dramatic effect of feathers on the garment. Therefore much care was taken in the overall look of the exhibit, as it is designed to feel like a series of glass bird cages, using a soft and muted color scheme to convey the lightness of the feathers, and the clothing contained within. The exhibit gives special consideration to Maison Lemaire, the famous Paris atelier that is to the art of “plumissage”  what Maison Lesage is to beading and embroidery.  Since designers no longer use truly exotic birds due to conversation concerns, as well as the costs involved in the process, Lemaire, says Van Godtstenhoven “can make a chicken feather look like it was plucked from a Bird of Paradise”.

The exhibit also features the feathered sculptures of Kate McGuire, a modern artist who creates abstract forms completely covered in feathers and places them in glass domes or vitrines reminiscent of the domes of the Victorian Age.  

The list of designers featured in the exhibit include: CHANEL, CHRISTOBAL BALENCIAGA, CHRISTIAN DIOR, GIVENCHY, PRADA, ALEXANDER MCQUEEN, ROCHA, NINA RICCI, LOUIS VUITTON, GIAMBATISTA VALLI, YVES SAINT LAURENT, DRIES VAN NOTTEN, and ANNE DEMEULEMEESTER.

Kate McGuire’s sculptures evoke the practice of placing exotic taxidermy under glass domes or display vitrines. Her work is abstract and can be disturbing as the shapes that she creates give the feeling that they are just about to move. While they do not depict actual animals the do give the impression of an animal of sorts, twisted or turned in a way that is unrecognizable at the moment but gives the feeling that it will turn and expose what it really is momentarily.

While Coco Chanel was known for her graphic use of feathers in her clothing the practice continues as shown in this signature Chanel jacket and dress ensemble by Karl Lagerfeld for Chanel. Mr Lagerfeld is famous for his use of feathers in his evening wear to evoke lightness, luxury, and a sense of 1920’s glamour.

According to Karen Van Godtsenhoven in a story that she told to Diane Pernet of ASVF (A Shaded View of Fashion) because of the delicate construction, weight, and volume of her spectacular Swans Down coat, Marlene Dietrich chose not to pack and send it ahead to her performance locations. Instead she had several made and left them in her homes that were closest to her performance destinations.

Fans were some of the first feathered pieces to appear as accessories. They were used at the Court of Elizabeth I and were present liberally in the French Court used by The Nobility and the Royals as well. As with everything that was embraced by the French Court at the time the trend was adopted by the high ranking society of countries throughout Europe.

This dress by Sarah Burton for Alexander McQueen was one in a series of complex feathered gowns that solidified her position as the deserving new heir apparent designer to the house of McQueen.

An elaborate explosion of feathers provides an unusual textured effect that encompasses this creation by Olivier Theyeskens for Rocha.

These sculptural feathered creations by Sarah Burton for Alexander McQueen are startling but have been editorialized around the world for their unusual and unique approach to design and their use of feathers.

Belgium designer Dries Van Notten has used feathers in his collections repeatedly, Here he trims necklines and wraps the front of a dress to add a twenties sense of glamour.

Marc Jacobs startled his audience with his stunning departure collection for Louis Vuitton. The collection featured feathers trimming everything from  velvet jackets and delicate chiffon blouses and dresses to jeans. These headdresses were created by Stephen Jones for the collection and  provided the dramatic end point for this stunning collection.

Frances’ Thierry Mugler not only used feathers in his dramatic evening-wear creations but was often known to use feathers metaphorically evoking the very wings of the birds that he used. While his over-the-top creations were presented with his designer Ready to Wear collections the quality of workmanship, materials, and design spoke the language of a Couture Collection. In a famous anniversary collection Mugler stunned his audience with dozens of angels wearing brightly colored wings with matching togas in an homage to heaven and himself!

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