Light as a Feather

Today, I attended a gallery talk on this fluffy, decadent fan, part of the exquisite Edwardian Opulence show at the  Yale Center for British Art.  Here’s the view from the gallery, so as you can see, there’s more artistry than what hangs on the wall.










The talk was presented by the witty, urbane curator Angus Trumble, who was full of geeky decorative arts trivia about, you guessed it, ostrich feathers.




The paradox of these luxury goods are several.  The feather plumes are bulky but light, and the feathers off the bird are thinnish and heavy when wettened in an early stage of processing.  The Edwardians enjoyed plumes that were made from an industrial process, yet owe their elegance to artisanal practices developed mostly in France, at least a hundred years earlier.  Yiddish-speaking Jewish traders  procured the feathers for people who probably wouldn’t associate with them, including the milliners as well as their phenomenally rich patrons.  This most beautiful plumage starts as a dirty, dung-covered thing.  A complex, tedious process of industrial laundering, bleaching, starching (which allows sculptural molding of forms), dying up to fifty different colors, willowing (sewing sections of plumes together for fullness, and lastly, curling or straightening, just like at the hairdresser.  Exhausting sounding, isn’t it?

Men did the heavy, dirty work and suffered from the noxious fumes.  Women worked in sweat shops, shaping the feathers according to milliner specifications.  Their tool– broken glass!  And we complain about our workplaces.

Men and women of fashion might get their feather in a long box, wrapped with a new material called cellophane.  To be presented at court, men needed to be in their most formal attire, which might  include a feather trimmed hat or hat with a plume.  Women wore ostrich feather plumes in their hair.  Like so much of polite society, the plumes were coded:  three feathers were worn by married ladies, while single women only wore two.

Fans “were the ultimate weapon in the game of love” according to Trumble.  They were”highly articulate fascinators” with a range of gestures and poses signaling particular communiques.

The rabid desire for ostrich feathers died off quickly for two reasons.  With World War One, women went to work in jobs formerly held by men off fighting.  It would have been absurd to wear feathers to work.  And the new speeds motorcars could achieve–up to 40mph–unmoored even the sturdiest plumes.  After that, ostrich feathers were relegated to show biz and burlesque.



1912-3 Ostrich Feather Fan      Unknown Maker, probably English

The fan from the exhibit was bought in a shop, by Baron de Rothschild for his nephew’s fiancé.  So it was not a unique piece,  but mass produced.  It features a rare blonde tortoiseshell which is a translucent caramel color.  Wonderful.  It is studded in diamonds, only visible part of the time, depending on how she used her fan.  Its fluffiness came from the sacrifice of 150 ostriches.  Yep, those ostriches gave their lives for this frivolity, but also supplied meat, leather, and their desirable eggs, used for additional decorative, hedonistic ends.  Ostriches also provide a pretty peppy ride apparently, but are bad-tempered and dangerous, which sounds like some subways, trains , and busses I know.