Photo by Leroy Buckley.

August 1, 2023

Ruffling Fashion Trends Protected Birds

Fashion trends are not go-to topics of conversation for wildlife biologists and outdoorsy types. Yet, fashion has had a big influence on wildlife conservation. A prime example is the fashion craze in women’s hats in the late 1800s. The frenzy of fashionistas demanding the latest styles brought several bird species to the brink of extinction. Let’s take a look at that story, which ultimately led to a triumph in conservation history.

A pair of egrets in their white breeding plumage stand on their large stick nest which contains three egret chicks.
Egret populations were hard hit by the demand for their breeding plumage. Image by homecare119 from Pixabay.

For centuries, humans have bedecked themselves with feathers. In many indigenous cultures, feathers have long carried symbolism. Wearing feathers makes a statement about one’s status in some cultures. Feathers continue to be important in ceremony and ritual today.

In Europe, plumed hats came in vogue as early as the 14th century, according to Malcom Smith in the BBC History Magazine. “[By] the 16th century,” he explained, “hats adorned with ostrich feathers were in demand by those wealthy enough to purchase them in the fashion centres of Europe: Paris, Vienna, Florence and Prague.”

Feathered hats continued their long run of popularity in Europe well into the 19th and early 20th centuries. The styles of haute culture crossed the Atlantic Ocean to the United States, and the millinery industry on both sides of the water scrambled to keep up with the insatiable demand for feathered hats. Anyone who was anyone simply had to have feathers atop their heads. In a classic struggle of one-upmanship, wealthy women wore increasingly outrageous hats with feathers of every imaginable color, size and arrangement. Some upped the ante by wearing hats decorated not with only feathers, but entire birds (dead, of course).

Lillian Russell, 1861-1922, bust portrait, facing right, wearing plumed hat made of ostrich feathers.
Lillian Russell, 1861-1922, wearing plumed hat made of ostrich feathers. Photo by William McKenzie Morrison, Library of Congress.

The millinery industry obliged their paying customers with more and more hats, using more and more birds. As the millinery trade modernized, hats could be mass produced – which meant more birds were needed. An astounding number of birds were killed to meet the demands of the fashion market. In an NPR report, author Linton Weeks quotes research stating that “more than 5 million birds were being massacred yearly to satisfy the booming North American millinery trade.” A publication of Cornell University reported that overall, an estimated 300 million birds were plucked for the feathers of ladies’ hats by the early 20th century.

In the resource-rich lands of the New World, little thought was given to over-harvesting. Wildlife was there for the taking. Until … it wasn’t.
Some people took notice and spoke up. William Temple Hornaday, a prominent naturalist in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, decried the destruction of birds. As reported in Hoosier State Chronicles, Hornaday brought to light the magnitude of the slaughter. “At one London feather sale … ten-thousand hummingbird skins were ‘on offer.’ About 192,000 herons had been killed to provide the packages of heron feathers sold at a single London auction in 1902. Other popular feathers came from birds like the egret, eagle, condor, bustard, falcon, parrot, and bird of paradise.”

A Pair of Great Blue Herons stand in their large nest of sticks.
A pair of great blue herons stand in their nest. Until protections were put in place, it was not uncommon for entire rookeries to be almost wiped out. Photo by Leroy Buckley.

It was the work of two women, however, that made the biggest impact in bringing a halt to the killing of birds. Harriet Lawrence Hemenway and Minna B. Hall, prominent socialites in Boston, gathered women together to educate them about the impact their fashion statements had on bird life. At that time, social media tactics consisted of hosting tea parties and distributing flyers. It worked. Word spread, and the story was picked up by the Chicago Tribune, the New York Times and other major newspapers.

Hemenway and Hall formed the nation’s first Audubon Society in Massachusetts. Soon, Audubon groups sprang up in other states. A movement was underway. There were protests, speeches and circulars. In 1897, Sara A. Hubbard, the director of the newly formed Illinois Audubon Society, said, “I expect to live to see the time when the wearing of bird plumage will be a brand of ignorance.”

The turn of the century saw many wildlife species, from birds to bison, in precipitous decline. For some, like the passenger pigeon, it was too late. But thanks to the ardent work of people like Hemenway and Hall, a conservation ethic was taking shape. Their voices joined those of organized sport hunters concerned about marketing, and in 1900, one of the first conservation laws was passed. The Lacey Act prohits trade in wild game species for sale across state borders. Soon thereafter, the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918 made it illegal to “kill, capture, trade, and transport migratory bird species.”

Thus, a fashion craze led to a movement. Thanks to a few socialites, many birds were saved from the precipice of extinction. Thankfully, we can spot an egret atop a tree in rookery instead of seeing it atop a woman’s head at the Ritz.

Valerie Blaine has worked as a naturalist for more than 40 years, from the prairies and woodlands of Illinois to the shores of the San Francisco Bay. She earned a master’s degree in forestry and a bachelor’s degree in botany from the University of Illinois. Blaine retired as the Nature Programs Manager for the Forest Preserve District of Kane County.

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