At the New-York Historical Society’s recently opened “Feathers: Fashion and the Fight for Wildlife,” feathers take on new weight.
Featuring a collection of ornate bird- and plumage-embellished clothing and accessories displayed alongside historical accounts of avian activism, the exhibition explores the darker sides of the feathered fashions of the late-19th century while celebrating the civic engagement that brought the trend’s underlying issues to light.
The exhibition, which runs through July 15, commemorates the centennial of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918. A landmark piece of conservation legislation, the treaty made it unlawful to “pursue, hunt, take, capture, kill, possess, sell, purchase, barter, import, export, or transport any migratory bird” and helped to halt the decimation of many at-risk bird populations used for sartorial purposes.
Arranged into three distinct sections, the first room of the exhibition features a disquieting collection of period pieces from the height of the plumage craze. Juxtaposing the formal beauty of the items with the more unsettling qualities of the taxidermy bodies, the display includes two severed red-legged honeycreeper hummingbird heads fashioned into earrings, an evening dress cut from crystal blue satin and embellished with a trail of swan’s-down, a muff and tippet set made from the bodies of herring gulls and a circular display of wide-brimmed hats supporting the bodies of entire birds, wings fanned out as if perched for flight.
“It’s amazing that in the early 1900s, so many birds would be slaughtered,” said Wendy Webber of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service at the exhibition’s opening reception. “But then it’s also so wonderful as I walk and I see, not only amazing leaders in conservation like Grinnell, but all the women,” she said, speaking of the exhibition’s second room, which highlights women who became activists in the name of bird preservation. “That was really this connection to the suffrage movement and all these amazing, forward-thinking conservationists, advocates for nature and birds, who really helped put a stop to that.”
In the exhibition’s final room, original watercolors painted by environmental enthusiast John James Audubon featuring birds saved with the help of the 1918 treaty line the walls and offer a visual foil to the plumage display at the opposite end of the gallery.
While “Feathers” celebrates the historic origins of the treaty, the focus of the exhibition remains relevant as ever, as the government recently announced cuts to key provisions of the treaty and fashion moves, once more, toward the plumed trends.
All photos courtesy Maureen Coyle.