I stumbled across Heather Firbank, Edwardian fashion victim, when I made an appointment to view a dozen feathered hats at the Victoria and Albert Museum’s archive centre in Olympia, west London. I was researching a book on the women who campaigned to save the birds from ‘murderous millinery’, and I wanted to understand why these fashionable plumed creations were so helplessly seductive.
Twelve vintage hatboxes had been taken out of storage for me, their lids removed and the breath-taking contents eased out from tissue paper wadding. I arrived to find a dozen early 20th-century hats laid out, like plates at a dinner party, for my delectation.
Ostrich fronds stirred beneath my breath as I examined each item. Here was paradise, peacock, ostrich and egret. Here were hats dressed with grebe down, hats trimmed with beaver and otter fur, hats sprouting blue wings, or sharp beaks and glittering eyes. They were strikingly sensory objects, seductive yet also, to my modern eyes, repellent.
Ten of the twelve hats bore the archival footnote, ‘Worn by Miss Heather Firbank’.
Who was Miss Firbank? And why did she own so many seductively feathered hats?
I didn’t know it at first, but laid out on the large white table before me were the chapters of a young woman’s life. From seduction, to mourning, to spendthrift extravagance, to spinsterhood: an extraordinarily intimate narrative hidden within airy fronds and silk bandeaux. Social rituals, regular as clockwork, were measured out by the stab holes in each hat brim, a long hatpin skewering through elaborate puffs of hair several times a day. Each hole marked a journey undertaken, a social call made, a dressmakers’ fitting, first night attended, tryst kept or bolted from. Heather Firbank was born, grew up and matured within the precise arc of my story – a book investigating the concurrent female campaigns for women’s rights and animal rights. Its arguments were an urgent background debate to her youth, reaching crescendo pitch in her twenties. Why did they not touch her?
Heather was born in a Mayfair town house on 27 August 1888, the year before my British bird protection heroines Emily, Eliza and Etta founded their Society for the Protection of Birds (soon to become the Royal SPB). Heather’s was the coming generation; the new wave of modern young women who would go on to break the status quo in so many ways. The Pankhurst girls – Christabel, Sylvia and Adela – were Heather’s contemporaries, all born in the Eighties. But unlike the politicised Pankhurst daughters, Heather’s path was already minutely prescribed.
When she was seven, her father Thomas – the son of a self-made railway entrepreneur – became a Conservative MP. When she was fourteen, the new King made him a knight. ‘How good God has been to us darling all through the year now so nearly past’ wrote the newly titled Lady Firbank to her son Ronald in December 1902. Within two generations, the Firbanks had risen dizzyingly from coal mining to titled elite, taking their place with the new ‘mob of plebeian wealth’ that ‘surged into the drawing room, the portals of which had until then been so jealously guarded.’ It was Edward VII, friend to rich industrialists, who had opened the floodgates.
Wearing the obligatory three ostrich feathers, Heather was presented at court in 1908, curtseying low before a Queen who had recently put her influential name behind the bird protection movement. She was launched upon society just as hats were becoming preposterously large, bird populations dwindling and morals loosening. The years between King Edward’s coronation and his funeral saw her morph from shy maiden to ardent lover. She became the consummate modern ‘shopping woman’ – up to, through and beyond the First World War; a willing victim of the new consumer culture. Heather learned to shop, dress and parade herself in feathers and furs at a time in which the female identity, and silhouette, was changing fast. She spent freely and far too much; she was what we might today call a shopaholic. She was also among the first ‘women of property’ able to vote, having reached 30 – that contentious age bar – in 1918.
Heather was wearing plumed bird-of-paradise on her head in 1920, the year before the Plumage Bill was finally passed in Britain, making the importation of exotic bird skins from countries like New Guinea illegal.
Then, in 1926, Heather interred all her hats and sumptuous clothing in several large trunks, a melancholy gesture marking the end of youth and romantic possibility. She was 38. The base colour of her wardrobe was purple – not for the suffragette colours of purple, green and white; but purple for her name, Heather. A little sprig was embroidered on her silk undergarments, which today rest in the V&A fashion archive along with much of her prolific, exquisitely tailored and fashion-conscious apparel.
Heather Firbank’s blithe indifference to both animal and women’s rights shows us how minority these factions actually were. How few they touched. She was a natural conservative, not a faddist, and typical of her social circle.
But, as I was to discover, Heather had her passions.
When I visited the V&A archive library to discover more about the owner of these fashionable hats, I was handed a large envelope marked with the following in pencil: ‘In the event of my death, I request that these envelopes (4) containing letters may be unopened and burnt by my Brother, Arthur Ronald Firbank.’
They had not been burnt. And so I was able to read their blushingly private contents, putting me on an unnervingly intimate footing with Miss Firbank.
NEXT POST: The Seduction of Heather Firbank.
Cloche straw hat decorated with black-dyed Raggiana bird-of-paradise, from D.J. Jones & Son, Swansea, 1920
NEXT INSTALLMENT: The Seduction of Heather Firbank.
‘In the autumn of 1910, when Heather was 22, an invitation was hand-delivered to the family house in Curzon Street, Mayfair. “Miss Firbank. Ask for answer” read the envelope…’
Read about the Victorian women who campaigned to save the birds from ‘murderous millinery’: Mrs Pankhurst’s Purple Feather: Fashion, Fury and Feminism – Women’s Fight for Change
‘Brilliantly conceived’ – The Daily Telegraph
For context on Heather’s world and her shopping habit: London Society Fashion 1905-1925: The Wardrobe of Heather Firbank by Cassie Davies-Strodder, Jenny Lister and Lou Taylor (V&A Publishing 2015).
Portraits of Heather Firbank, copyright V&A Heather Firbank Archive.