I’ve just returned from an amazing trip to Africa. Amongst the huge variety of wildlife we saw were these iconic birds – ostriches. I knew that in the Europe of the eighteenth and nineteenth century ostrich feathers were highly prized as fashion items but I had no idea that the demand had been so high that the ostrich almost went the way of the dodo and was hunted to near-extinction. These days most the wild ostriches in South West Africa are descended from domestic stock that were farmed to meet the huge demand. So today I thought I would blog about the illustrious ostrich in history!
The ostrich puzzled early naturalists so much that they gave it the name “struthio camelus”, the
“sparrow camel”. Long before ostrich feathers became a fashion item the birds were figures of fascination, represented in paintings from Ancient Egypt and the Roman world. Their eggs were used as water containers.
As early as the 16th century the “estridge” was a type of felt hat made of the soft down of ostrich feathers and in the 17th century it was men who primarily wore ostrich feathers in their hats and it was a staple item for the dashing cavalier of the English Civil War! Even the military headdresses of the British Army introduced feather bonnets in 1763, entwining ostrich feathers into a cage to produce the height.
By the later 18th century wearing the ostrich feather was primarily a female fashion and it adorned everything from headdresses to furniture. Feathers were a tricky thing to wear; the height of the headdresses meant that they could not be worn in closed carriages and a room was set aside for ladies attending balls and assemblies in which they could affix their feathers. There was a genuine danger of huge feathers catching fire on chandeliers laden with candles. A number of caricatures of the Georgian and Regency period poke fun at the outrageous feather fashion and the dangers associated with it.
Feathers were everywhere. This ostentatious looking tester bed at Windsor castle dating from 1780 is topped by a dome of ostrich feathers. A similar concoction in Paris dating from 1775 is hung with silk and has ostrich plumes on the corners of the four posts!
Some of the earliest Egyptian and Chinese fans had been made from feathers and by the turn of the 19th century the feather fan came back into fashion as an evening accessory. It’s an often- quoted fact that when the Titanic sank the value of the feathers lost in fans and hats was £20 000.
The town of Oudtshoorn in South Africa was know as the feather capital of the world for the huge fortunes its occupants made from the trade in ostrich feathers, So great was the demand that ounce for ounce the feathers were more precious than gold. In the early 20th century these feather merchants were so rich that they build grand “feather palaces” in the town off the proceeds of their trade. A total of 100 000 tons of plumes were supplied to trim the hats and gowns of the fashion-conscious in 1913 alone. Feather auctions were held in cities such as London, Paris and New York every fortnight, with prices becoming ridiculously inflated. But finally the First World War put an end to such conspicuous consumption although ostrich feathers remained a recognised part of English court dress right up until 1939.
These days, ostrich feathers are farmed and can be harvested every 8 months with no harm to the birds but the ostrich feather is no longer either the fashion accessory or the status symbol it was. What do you think of feathers in fashion? Smart or tacky, eccentric or stylish? Would you wear them?