Did you know that the RSPB was started by women? Women with an unusually singular purpose. They were going to stamp out the fashion for feathers in hats.
For half a century, from the High Victorian era to the Jazz Age, wild bird species were systematically slaughtered for the millinery trade in one of the most lucrative markets on earth. In 1891 two women’s groups – one in Croydon, one in Manchester – banded together to save the birds. They called themselves the Society for the Protection of Birds, and their astonishingly swift growth earned then the Royal Charter in 1904.
One remarkable woman led the anti-plumage campaign for the RSPB – and she did so quietly and heroically for half a century, leading it to eventual victory. She campaigned so doggedly, and for so long, against ‘murderous millinery’ that she became known as ‘Mother of the Birds’. Her struggle to get the world to care about birds met with as much contempt and indifference as Emmeline Pankhurst’s fight for the vote. Right up until the First World War, the idea of bird protection was as laughable as the concept of female emancipation.
She stuck to her convictions though, and she won her fight. The law was changed, plumage imports were banned, and the strange fashion for ‘avian adornment’ receded into the past. Britain became a nation of bird-lovers. This woman is today a forgotten figure, even within the RSPB. Not a plaque, not a portrait at headquarters, not a mention in the canon of women who helped shape the twentieth century. Yet she has proved, in her way, to be as deeply influential to the modern psyche as the elaborately plumed leader of the suffragettes, Mrs Pankhurst.
Her name is Etta Lemon. This is the first time her story has been told.
Sue Hills, TV director, Who Do You Think You Are
Mike Everett, RSPB staff 1964-2003
A dozen feathered hats, hidden within the fashion archives of the Victorian
V&A Lunchtime Lecture, WEDNESDAY 17 OCTOBER 1pm, Hochhauser Auditorium: ‘Bird Hats and Murderous Millinery.’ Whole birds, half birds and birds’ wings decorate dozens of hats held in the V&A’s fashion archives – evidence of a craze that gripped women for half a century, from the 1870s to the 1920s. Join me to hear the intriguing untold story of women, birds, hats – and votes.
This lecture dovetails with the current Fashioned From Nature Exhibition.