Species around the world were being brought to the brink of extinction, with London as the world’s feather bourse. Plumage was shipped by the ton to the capital, unpacked and displayed in giant warehouses before monthly auctions.
On 21 March 1888, the biggest plumage sale yet recorded was held in the London Commercial Sales Rooms in Mincing Lane. The catalogue contained the following:
Once sold, the bundles of bird skins were unpacked, washed, dyed, trimmed and fashioned into millinery adornments in a series of fetid outhouses and backyards in the City of London. The feathered ‘novelties’ then passed to a millinery warehouse, and hence to a milliner – whose young, workworn fingers would wrestle them onto a wire and cambric base and stitch them into place, pushing and pulling the needle in and out of the hat’s velvet bandeau.
This is a lost world: one in which the hats, their wearers and the women who made them have vanished. I have plundered the archives to bring this shadowy, feathery world back to life. From the Victorian feather washer imprisoned for stealing two ostrich feathers, to the Irish milliner masquerading as an Italian countess, I unveil the female labour propping up the plumage trade.
Who was buying the murderous millinery? Using old ledger books, diaries and newspaper gossip columns, I uncover the shopping weaknesses of titled ladies, suffragettes and brazen slum girls alike.
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.