Tuesday, February 15, 2011

The Fashion for Feathers

There’s two things I really love about my job. The first is that every day I get to look very closely at works of art and artifacts. I examine them to determine what they’re made of and how they’re made. That’s important in order to make good decisions about how to repair and care for the collections. The other thing that I love is the incredible diversity of works of art and artifacts that are part of Shelburne Museum’s collection. That diversity means that I sometimes encounter materials or condition issues that I'm less familiar with. When that happens I turn to the ever expanding body of literature devoted to conservation treatment as well as to colleagues with practices more specialized than my own for advice. I’m always learning something new but often building on something that I’ve encountered before in some other context.

Here’s an example.

That was Then: Fine Feathered Furniture?
Interns in the lab and I worked on feather furniture from miniature interiors a while back. In a 1995 article in the magazine Doll Reader, historian John Darcy Noble noted that it wasn’t uncommon in the late eighteenth century to decorate doll houses with furniture made of feathers, and he called these silk upholstered examples from the museum’s DuCane doll house “unusually elegant”.

Maker unknown, feather chairs from the Ducane doll house, c. 1790, 30.1-14

The sides of the feathers were almost entirely cut away from the quills in order to create the chairs’ frames. I cleaned the chairs and repaired the deteriorated silk fabric in preparation for the reinstallation of the Variety Unit building in 2003. Larry Shutts, who interned in the lab as part of his graduate studies in art conservation, cleaned and repaired this suite of nineteenth-century feather furniture. The floor is straw parquetry.

Maker unknown, Dining room with feather furniture, 21-115

Pretty ingenious how the vanes, those interlocked strands of feather material to the sides of the quills, were arranged to emulate woven seats, huh?

This is Now: Feathered Finery
These days I’m preparing garments and clothing accessories that will go in display in the exhibition In Fashion, opening in June, 2011, and some of the women’s wear and accessories are embellished with feathers in remarkable ways.

Maker unknown, Cape, c. 1885, 1982-4.782

Dark downy feathers trim this paisley cape, made about 1885. The feathers’ quills were split so that the feathers could be closely stacked and stitched down to a backing fabric. The fluffy barbs were cut to produce that dense fur-like appearance. What an incredible amount of work went into making that trim! And how many birds?

Unfortunately I can’t tell you what sort of bird those feathers came from, but, thanks to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Forensics Department’s fantastically helpful Feather Atlas and Identification Guide for Eagle Feathers , I can tell you that the feathers on this nineteenth-century folding fan are secondary flight feathers from an immature golden eagle.

Maker unknown, Folding Fan, 2010-72

These are just the tip of the iceberg as far as nineteenth-century feather festooned finery in the collection. There are hats and hand screens embellished with whole birds. Societal reaction turned against this craze for using feathers and taxidermy in women’s fashions at the end of the nineteenth century, giving rise to the Audubon Society and the Migratory Bird Treaty Act.

There are feathers in other areas of Shelburne Museum's collections, too. I’m looking forward to more feathery fun, in whatever form I find it.


  1. Another great post! Just try saying "nineteenth-century feather festooned finery" five times fast.

  2. Nancie,

    Thanks for these great feather finds!! I only wish the images could be enlarged!!!


  3. Hi Ellen,
    There's some details of the paisley cape over on Flickr, including this image of one of the feathers that had come detached from the trim. I'll add pictures of the fan and the furniture to the photostream too. Thanks for the suggestion!


  4. Do you think the feathers might be ostrich or emu? Barbary ostrich?

  5. Hi Miss Molly,
    Good thought about the feathers on the cape. They look more like ostrich than emu to me. Given the date of the cape, Barbary ostrich is a strong possibility.Thanks for getting me to look into it further.


  6. Nancie,

    I was thinking this but forgot to write it: I love this blog and seeing the Flickr pictures! I appreciate you taking the time to share with us. I have spent many hours looking at the museum's textiles over the years and I'm totally psyched about the fashion exhibit this summer!


  7. Thanks, Miss Molly! You totally made our day! I'm glad to have the chance to share a bit of what happens behind the scenes here. June and In Fashion will be here in no time! We're psyched too!