It's probably fair to say that up until around the 20th century, we cared far less about the welfare of wildlife than we do today. Mankind has wiped out so many different species due to recklessness, greed or outright indifference. We killed off the Great Auk in the 1840s-50s, the dodo in the late 17th century, and we decimated the giant turtle in the 16th century onwards because we ate them almost entirely to death. But there was one animal that suffered a great deal at the hands of the Victorians and Edwardians, all in the name of fashion. Millinery, to be precise. Birds, to be even more to the point.
As the clothing of the later Victorian and early Edwardian periods got slimmer, more streamlined and generally less fussy, the hats got more and more outrageous. The more standard feathers and bright plumage, which had been used in millinery for centuries, gave way to wings, heads and whole, taxidermied birds. Pairs of birds, even.
1904 hat with full bird of paradise
Edwardian hat with full exotic bird
Pigeons - less exotic but no less worthy of saving
No one really worried about the birds themselves, since, they figured, they were all species that were so abundant as to be impervious to any threats. How wrong they were! The egret was one species highly prized by milliners in London and New York - it had gossamer feathers that became even more prominent in mating season. This meant, sadly, that plume hunters targeted them during this time, orphaning the hatchlings and wiping out several generations in one go. London, once descrived as 'the Mecca of the feather killers of the world' went through about 130,000 egrets in one nine-month period in the late 1880s. Terns, herons, spoonbills and other wading birds, including flamingos, were the most popular. Birds of Paradise, hummingbirds, parrots and all manner of exotic species were also en vogue and thus soon threatened with extinction. According to Astor Place Vintage, in 1903, an ounce of fashionable feathers was worth more than an ounce of gold, with each ounce amounting to four dead birds.
In lieu of a trip round the world to see these birds in their natural habitats, to show why the Edwardians prized the feathers so much, I went to the Natural History Museum. As well as destructive millinery, the Victorians & Edwardians also loved taxidermy. These are all birds typically used on hats according to my research but here they are stuffed whole for display, which may or may not be any better.
Clockwise from top left: Himalayan pheasant, egret, bird of paradise, quetzal
The Museum of Nova Scotia has a page that is actually vintage (since it was last updated in 1998), that details an order to a 'plumassier' of London: "The demand for feathers reached epidemic proportions. In 1892, a single order of feathers to a London dealer included 6,000 bird of paradise feathers, 40,000 hummingbird feathers and 360,000 feathers from other East Indian birds (McDowell, 1992). By the turn of the century, hats piled high with feathers were all the rage—so much so, in fact, that feathers themselves were no longer enough." Hence the move onto bird heads, wings, tails and entire bodies.
Clockwise from top left: The tail of a bird of paradise from a Victorian study case,two hummingbirds from one of the saddest and most magnificent things in the Natural History Museum
- a huge case containing hundreds of tiny, stuffed hummingbirds, a painting of an egret, a roller
Ostrich feathers, which were deemed OK, even in the wake of a final ban;
and a crowned pigeon head, for study rather than fashion, though!
and a crowned pigeon head, for study rather than fashion, though!
- That Members shall discourage the wanton destruction of Birds, and interest themselves generally in their protection
- That Lady-Members shall refrain from wearing the feathers of any bird not killed for purposes of food, the ostrich only excepted.
They campaigned fiercely against the plumage trade and in 1891 joined forces with the Fur and Feathers based in Croydon to form the Society for the Protection of Birds.
In September 1899, Queen Victoria confirms an Order that certain regiments should discontinue wearing 'osprey' plumes.
Protesting gents ©RSPB
What does this have to do with King Edward VII, you may well ask. Well, in 1904, the Society had gained such influence and momentum that it was granted the Royal Charter and became the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds. In 1906, Queen Alexandra declared that she would no longer wear exotic plumage on her hats (or outfits).
Finally, in this tale related to his Majesty, the Importation of Plumage (Prohibition) Bill was introduced to Parliament in 1908, though it was not passed until 1921. Still, it is so heartening to know that despite his fondness for shooting things on his own hunting trips, our hero knew a good cause when he saw one, and we can perhaps thank him in no small way that many of these species threatened by fashion are still with us today.
The NHM goes well with KGL!
I didn't want to leave my field trip there, so to make it even more interesting, with two possible sources of gems in close proximity, the only thing for me to do was to head up the road to look at both Edwardian costume at the V&A!
I mainly wanted to see if they had any bird-based hats. They sadly did not. They had two examples of the more streamlined Edwardian outfits that led to the increasing fanciness of hats. They also had one chapeau. This one was a post Queen Alexandra swearing off feathers number.
Dried flowers are beautiful as well as being entirely cruelty-free, unless you believe flowers are sentient (of course you don't, you aren't a loony).
I hope you have enjoyed this little story from the time of King Edward VII. Since none of these articles is complete with a bit of posing, here are two more shots of me in the beautiful wildflower garden outside the Natural History Museum, which I like to think is a little slice of England of old anyway - perfect setting for a wee bottle of King's Ginger.
Outfit deets coming in a separate post!
Since I haven't done it in a while and this is brand-new, I shall leave you with this gorgeous new King's Ginger cocktail, dreamed up by the Cocktail Lovers (who are also brilliant) which you should most definitely get yourself a bottle of KGL and try...
The Royal-Tea Cup from The Cocktail Lovers
- 40 ml The King's Ginger
- 15 ml homemade rhubarb syrup*
- 25 ml Twinings Lemon & Ginger tea**
- 10 ml fresh lemon juice
- 25 ml English sparkling wine
- Fresh ginger, raspberry and small sprig of mint to garnish
- Place two big ices cubes in a tea cup. Add all the ingredients except the sparkling wine and stir.
- Carefully top with the sparkling wine and gently stir again. Garnish with a thin slice of ginger, raspberry and the mint sprig secured with a cocktail stick.
* Homemade rhubarb syrup:
Chop two sticks of rhubarb into one inch pieces. Place in a pan and cover with one cup of water, two tablespoons of caster sugar and a dash of vanilla extract. Bring to the boil and simmer until the rhubarb is mushy. Leave to cool then strain through a piece of muslin or strainer into an airtight jar. The liquid will keep for a few days in the fridge.
** Lemon & Ginger tea:
Pour boiling water on to a single Twinings Lemon & Ginger tea bag. Leave to infuse for two minutes. Remove tea bag and allow to cool.
King's Ginger is available all over the place. Look here for where you can buy it!
Sounds delicious. Goodbye from me and my new friend the Cock of the Rock. ;)