During the Regency, feathers were often used as fashionable adornments, just as they had been for millenia. But unlike the feather wearers of previous centuries, by the Regency, it was almost only women who arrayed themselves in feathers. Rather ironic, when one considers that in the avian world, it is typically the male who sports the most colorful plumage. Though our Regency fore-mothers did enjoy wearing feathers, particularly on their hats, they did not go to the lengths of women in the Victorian era, who, in some cases, wore entire birds on their hats.
The feathers of fashion in Regency England . . .
When did feathers become a fashion accoutrement for humans? Long before those humans even knew what fashion was, at least in the sense we understand it today. Archaeologists have found evidence of the wearing of feathers among the Neanderthals at a site in northern Italy. Over 650 bird bones were found, all with cut and scrape marks on the wing bones which indicates the removal of the large, and probably, colorful wing feathers. Since none of the bird species found in this dig are known to have been sources of food, the archaeologists and anthropologists who studied the evidence at this site believe that the feathers were used for personal adornment by members of the group. It is almost certain that other prehistoric humans also used feathers to adorn and embellish their clothing through the centuries.
The ancient Egyptians were known to use feathers, in particular, the ostrich feather, which, to them, was a symbol of truth. In fact, it is the ostrich feather which appears in a number of Egyptian murals as a symbol of Ma’at, the goddess of truth, balance, order and justice. Both balance and justice were symbolized in the feather due to the even distribution of the barbs, or fibers, of the feather on either side of the shaft. It was Ma’at’s responsiblity to pass judgement on the souls of the deceased to determine if they were fit to enter heaven or be should consigned to the underworld. It appears that some high-ranking Egyptian women may have worn an ostrich feather in their head-dresses, perhaps to demonstrate their allegiance to Ma’at, and/or their own personal integrity. In ancient China, as early as 500 C. E., many among the wealthy and elite classes carried fans made of feathers. However, feathers do not appear to have been incorporated into Chinese garments or head-wear at this time. Other ancient cultures also made use of feather ornaments from time to time.
It is believed that ostrich plumes were introduced into medieval Europe by knights returning from the Crusades. Many such plumes had been seized as part of the spoils of war from the petty potentates who ruled the areas in which the knights fought. Thus, in Europe, such feathers came to be seen as symbols of power and prestige and were coveted for their beauty and fragility. Throughout the Middle Ages, the fashion for feathers as personal adornment appears to have waxed and waned over the centuries. From at least the twelfth century, in Venice, it was common to use feathers to decorate the masks worn at the famous pre-Lenten carnival which was held in the city each year. In England, from the fifteenth century, feathers were especially popular on hats and head-dresses worn by both men and women of the royalty and the nobility. This practice continued through the sixteenth century and the most popular feather for the purpose was still the ostrich plume, though those of lesser means might use the feathers of more common birds. The peacock feather also found favor among the very wealthy by the sixteenth century, as did the plumes of the heron, the crane and the swan. Because feathers were expensive to acquire and to maintain, they were seldom worn by anyone outside the upper classes.
Prior to the seventeenth century, the feathers used to adorn clothing and hats were typically in the natural state in which they came from the bird. But in seventeenth-century France, a new tradesman, or more correctly, an artisan, in the feather trade began to emerge, the plumassier. The "arts" in which the plumassier engaged included cleaning, bleaching, dying, curling, shaping and finishing the plumes of ostriches and other birds. These artisans were able to produce feathers in a wide range of colors and in elegant shapes which they would retain though repeated wearing. They could then be used to ornament high-status, fashionable accessories such as fans and muffs, as well as hats and garments. By the turn of the eighteenth century, there were also a number of plumassiers plying their trade in England, particularly in London.
Through the eighteenth century, both men and women of the upper classes often ornamented their hats with feathers. Sometimes the ornament might be a single, fine plume. In other cases, it might be an aigrette or cluster of small feathers, often accented with one or more jewels. It was at this time, in England, that the figurative phrase "a feather in one’s hat" was introduced and came to mean that an individual had achieved some significant accomplishment. In the second half of the eighteenth century, in France, Queen Marie Antoinette initiated a new feather fashion when she began wearing sprays of feathers in her hair. Though the French Queen typically wore peacock or ostrich feathers, when the fashion spread to England, many ladies wore other feathers in their hair when attending grand social events.
As the eighteenth century drew to a close, men began to adopt more restrained styles in their clothing. In particular, the wearing of feathers was no longer considered acceptable male fashion. Beau Brummell, in his effort to promote understated, well-cut and finely tailored garments, was a staunch opponent of feathers having any place in the wardrobes of fashionable males. Therefore, by the Regency, very few men were to be seen wearing feathers of any kind. The only exceptions were the head-gear of some soldiers in dress uniforms and the bonnets of Scottish Highlanders in full traditional dress. Upper-class Regency men in civilian dress typically wore the high-crowned beaver hat, which, if it had any embellishment at all, was a matching ribbon around the crown, just above the brim. Men of the middle and lower classes might sometimes wear straw hats, which were typically accessorized by a plain black ribbon around the crown, above the brim, as was the style with beaver hats. But none of these hats for men were decorated with feathers.
Regency ladies, however, did continue to wear feathers, but with a great deal more restraint than the ostentatious styles which had been popularized by Marie Antoinette. Feathers were used regularly to adorn ladies hats and turbans. They were also a popular form of formal evening hair ornament for most of the decade, usually combined with precious metals and gem stones. Feathers were sometimes used to trim ladies’ outer-wear, such as mantles and pelerines, spencers and pelisses. Fans, muffs, and even the occasional reticule, for use during special occasions, might be seen embellished with feathers. And Regency plumassiers could provide feathers in a dazzling array of colors and shapes, thus enabling the milliners of the era to produce stunning accessories for the ladies who could afford them. The types of feathers most popular during the Regency were ostrich, peacock, grebe, egret, stork (marabou), pheasant, swan and heron.
It was also at about this time that the profession of milliner became established as a maker of hats, specifically for ladies. In the eighteenth century, a "milliner" was a maker and seller of a host of fancy wares and accessories, including intricately braided straw hats, mostly for ladies. The name derived from the city of Milan, in Italy, where such wares were first made and sold. But by the turn of the nineteenth century, in Britain, the term "milliner" had come to mean a person, usually female, who designed, made and/or sold hats solely for women. It was also at about this same time that the term "hat-maker" or "hatter" came to mean a person, usually male, who designed, made and/or sold hats only for men. Regency milliners might regularly do business with several plumassiers in order to acquire the types and colors of feathers they needed to create the confections intended for their best customers. Most Regency hatters might never do business with even one plumassier, unless they happened to be makers of hats for military officers. Since the dress head-gear for a number of regiments sported some type of feather embellishment, military hat-makers would have to acquire the types of feathers needed for such head-wear. Though records are not specific, it does seem that there were a few specialty plumassiers who dealt solely in the types of feathers required for the embellishment of military head-gear.
For the most part, feathers during the Regency were used to embellish hats, outer-wear and accessories for ladies. Feathers were not usually incorporated into gowns and dresses, though there are a few records which suggest that some ladies did wear evening gowns with hems edged with feathers. These were usually small feathers, often from domestic birds such as ducks, chickens, robins, larks, chickadees, swallows, wrens and even pigeons. But such instances appear to have been rare and infrequent during the Regency. Most men during the Regency who considered themselves at all fashionable would not have been seen wearing feathers for any reason. The only exceptions would have been military officers in full dress uniforms from those regiments which included feather embellishments on their head-wear, and, though it was still forbidden by law, a Scottish Highlander who chose to wear the traditional clothing of his clan, which included a bonnet ornamented with feathers.
The wearing of feathers exploded during the Victorian era, to the point that some species of birds were hunted to extinction. Our Regency ancestors were much more restrained in their use of feathers for fashionable accents and no species of bird went extinct during that period due to the demand for their feathers for ladies’ wear. Most designers of hats and other accessories seemed to adhere to the philosophy that less is more and feathers were used sparingly, allowing their fragility and beauty to enhance, rather than overwhelm, the wearer’s appearance. By the Regency, there were a number of professional plumassiers plying their trade in Britain. Though some people did still believe the best feathers came from French plumassiers, that source was not available to milliners and hatters in Great Britain until the second half of the Regency, when the Napoleonic Wars finally came to an end after Waterloo.
Dear Regency Authors, though feathers can add elegance, beauty and color to a lady’s ensemble, it is important to remember that feathers were very expensive during the Regency, and they should not be taken for granted. Typically, only those of the upper classes, or women kept by wealthy men, could afford to wear them. It is important to restrict the use of feathers to the fashions of the ladies who had the means necessary to be able to wear them in a Regency story. However, an enterprising young lady of the middle class might find a way to add some feather embellishment to a garment or accessory for a special occasion. If she spends most of her time in the country, she might well be able to acquire the feathers she needs from natural sources by keeping an eye out for feathers lost by birds in her area. Perhaps she finds enough swan feathers to make herself a lovely feather fan. Or, perhaps a local farmer raises ducks or chickens with a distinctive color. Might she gather those loose feathers she finds in the barnyard, then, carefully steam and shape them in order to edge the hood of her best cloak or the collar of her favorite pelisse? And let us not forget the plumassiers, the milliners and even the hatters of Regency England. How might they play a part in a Regency romance? Perhaps a young woman, the daughter of a poor French émigré, works as a plumassier to support herself and her mother. Will she encounter the hero one day, when making a delivery to a fashionable milliner? Or, might a French spy infiltrate the shop of a plumassier who supplies feathers to military hatters?