Murderous Millinery: A brief look at the fashion for feathered hats in the early 20th century

1909.09 les modes

Hats featured in the September issue of Les Modes, 1909.

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.

A feathered hat by the prestigious milliner Alphonsine featured in the June, 1910 issue of Les Modes.

A feathered hat by the prestigious milliner Alphonsine featured in the June, 1910 issue of Les Modes.

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.

Hat by Alphonsine featured in the October 1911 issue of Les Modes.

Hat by Alphonsine featured in the October 1911 issue of Les Modes.

Hat by Marie Louise featured in the June 1912 issue of Les Modes. The fad for large hats using great expansive of feathers was at its height during the years from 1909 to 1912.

Hat by Marie Louise featured in the June 1912 issue of Les Modes. The fad for large hats using great expansive of feathers was at its height during the years from 1909 to 1912.

Hat worn by the actress Forazane in the March 1913 issue of Les Modes. By 1913, the fad for wide hats had given way to narrow hats with a vertical emphasis. While feathers were still used, they were reduced to a decorative flourish.

Hat worn by the actress Forazane in the March 1913 issue of Les Modes. By 1913, the fad for wide hats had given way to narrow hats with a vertical emphasis. While feathers were still used, they were reduced to a decorative flourish.

The harsh realities of war brought more subdued styles into fashion, continuing the trend towards small hats. While feathers were still used, they would never again reach the decorative glory they received in the pre-war years, a result of both the whims of fashion and strides made by wildlife activists to protect endangered species.

The harsh realities of war brought more subdued styles into fashion, continuing the trend towards small hats. While feathers were still used, they would never again reach the decorative glory they received in the pre-war years, a result of both the whims of fashion and strides made by wildlife activists to protect endangered species. Hat by Lewis featured in the February 1917 issue of Les Modes.

[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.

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