In the early years of the twentieth century, the hat was the single most important fashion accessory—no respectable woman would go out during the day without one—but, by 1910, it was also increasingly the most controversial. Bird feathers were the most coveted decorations for the wide, expansive hats then in fashion. Dubbed “murderous millinery” in the press, the multi-million dollar feather industry was built on the almost entirely unregulated slaughter of hundreds of millions of birds around the world.
During a six-month period in 1911, four feather-trading firms sold approximately 223,490 bird corpses in London alone.[i] “The blood of uncounted millions of slaughtered birds is upon the heads of the women,” prominent wildlife activist William H. Hornaday told the New York Times in 1913, “They have shown themselves a scourge to bird life all over the world…The vanity of women and their thoughtless, stupid devotion to “style”–style that in this instance is decreed solely by commercial interests–are wiping off the face of the earth one after another of our beautiful and interesting bird species…The hummingbirds of Brazil, the egrets of all of the world, the rare birds of paradise, the toucan, the eagle, the condor, the emu, all are being exterminated, that women may decorate their hats.”[ii] By 1913, the fashion for wide, expansive hats had been replaced with more narrow, closely fitted styles with severe vertical inclinations, as seen in the hat modeled by the actress Forzane. While the use of feathers in fashion would never entirely go away, the new narrow styles in hats signaled a shift in women’s tastes towards less ornate headwear that would continue to dominant women’s fashion for the rest of the century and even today, when the wearing of hats has become almost entirely a novelty reserved for horse races and weddings. Campaigns by the Audobon Society in the United States and the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds in the United Kingdom eventually prohibited the killing of protected bird species.
[i] Murderous Millinery,” New York Times, July 31, 1898, 15; “Now for the Plumeless Hat: Tyrant Man Responsible for “Murderous Millinery,” New York Times, April 23, 1913, 3.
[ii] William T. Hornaday, “Woman the Juggernaut of the Bird World,” New York Times, February 23, 1913, 76.