Feather fans

Feather fans

In Brief

The "old feather fans" that Stephen, in Telemachus, recalls being locked in his mother's private drawer had been all the rage in the 1870s and 1880s. Apparently May has held onto some she possessed in her gay days before starting a family. Other chapters of the novel reflect the Victorian and Edwardian rage for attaching feathers or even entire wings of birds to hats, which by 1904 was becoming controversial.

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Hats adorned simply with a single feather had existed for a long time, as in the Alpine apparel featured in Circe when Bello appears "in mountaineer’s puttees, green silverbuttoned coat, sport skirt and alpine hat with moorcock’s feather." But Victorian fashionistas created an appetite for much showier displays, some of them much larger than the heads they topped. When Molly thinks in Penelope of being in a rowboat off Bray with Bloom, and "the hat I had with that feather all blowy and tossed on me how annoying and provoking," she is without doubt recalling something glamorous and unsuited to high winds. Birds' feathers, and sometimes even entire birds, were also wired to ladies' evening dresses and to fans whose colors complemented the dresses. By the turn of the century "feather fans" had largely disappeared, but hatmakers still depended on a supply of exotic bird parts from all over the globe. 

Many people protested the cruelty of killing beautiful birds for the sake of female vanity, as Joyce was well aware. In Circe, Leopold Bloom, who is normally acutely sensitive to animal cruelty, becomes so caught up in flirting with Josie Breen that he can joke about the beautiful bird’s wing that she once wore on a hat:


. . . you were in your heyday then and you had on that new hat of white velours with a surround of molefur that Mrs Hayes advised you to buy because it was marked down to nineteen and eleven, a bit of wire and an old rag of velveteen, and I’ll lay you what you like she did it on purpose . . .


She did, of course, the cat! Don’t tell me! Nice adviser!


Because it didn’t suit you one quarter as well as the other ducky little tammy toque with the bird of paradise wing in it that I admired on you and you honestly looked just too fetching in it though it was a pity to kill it, you cruel naughty creature, little mite of a thing with a heart the size of a fullstop.


(Squeezes his arm, simpers) Naughty cruel I was!

In America, the Audubon Society began as what its president, David Yarnold, calls "a fledgling social network" of people, mostly women, who "had come together in community-based chapters to take on a fashion industry that was slaughtering birds for hat feathers." The Audubon Society formed in 1886 to take concerted action against these mass slaughters of North American birds to supply plumes to the fashion industry. By 1904 the Society had heightened awareness of the problem among society women in Boston, started movements toward state and national legislation, and established the first Federal Bird Reservation, the beginning of the National Wildlife Refuge System.

The story in the United Kingdom was much the same. The Sea Birds Preservation Act of 1869 was the first British law to protect wild birds, though Parliament did it to protect sailors from shipwreck more than the birds themselves. In 1889 Emily Williamson of Manchester founded a group called the Plumage League specifically to protest the use of feathers in women's hats. In 1899 the women of her group joined with another such group to create the national organization called the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds. The RSPB pursued tactics much like those of the Audubon Society: conversion of promiment society ladies, obtaining a royal charter, petitioning Parliament for laws banning the use of feathers by the fashion industry, and founding wildlife reserves.

John Hunt 2020

A late Victorian feather fan, held in the Pitts Rivers Museum, Oxford. Source: www.prm.ox.ac.uk.

An Oktoberfest Bavarian costume hat. Source: www.wish.com.

1910 Knoefel lithographic print of a woman's hat adorned with bird feathers. Source: www.tias.com.

An Edwardian traveling hat decorated with a bird's wing.
Source: www.petpeoplesplace.com.