1860s: The Decade Hats Went To The Birds


Ever since man and woman decided to opt for something more sophisticated than fig leaves, once popular fashions have often caused later generations to raise their eyebrows.  “Men really thought that wearing powered wigs was…well, manly?  Women thought that extending the diameter of their skirt to six feet was a good idea?”

Recent decades has brought bellbottoms, parachute pants, and well…too many oddities to name.

But perhaps the weirdest fashion, the one that really brings to mind,  “What the hell were they thinking?”- is the fad which began in the 1860s.

Yes, this was the year that some Victorian women decided bows and lace and frill were simply not decorative enough for their hats.

And so came the birds.

*In 1864, the London Saturday Review noted that Parisians were wearing exotic butterflies and real hummingbirds in their hair.

In 1875,  Harper’s Bazaar noted,  “The entire bird is used, and is mounted on wires and springs that permit the head and wings to be moved about in the most natural manner.”  They went on to mention that while blackbirds were the most popular, swallows were stuffed, as well as heads of pigeons.

Birds as hat-wear, not surprisingly, was not without its objectors.

*By 1877 Mrs. Haweis (English artist and writer) lamented, “A wired edifice of tulle and velvet, trimmed with a mass of valueless blond (lace), a spray of tinsel, and perhaps a bird’s nest or something else equally bad in taste- e.g. moths, beetles, lizards, mice &c.- can never be a beautiful object.  At present the bonnets and the brains they cover are too often not unfit combinations.”

In 1886, Ornithologist Frank Chapman penned a letter to the editors of Forest and Stream: A Journal of Outdoor Life, Travel, Nature Study, Shooting in which he detailed the number of birds he’d seen upon the women passing him on the street. 

“Editor Forest and Stream:

In view of the fact that the destruction of birds for millin­ery purposes is at present attracting general attention, the appended list of native birds seen on hats worn by ladies in the streets of New York, may be of interest. It is chiefly the result of two late afternoon walks through the uptown shopping districts, and, while very incomplete, still gives an idea of the species destroyed and the relative numbers of each.

Robin, four.
Brown thrush, one.
Bluebird, three.
Blackburnion warbler, one.
Blackpoll warbler, three.
Wilson’s black-capped flycatcher, three.
Scarlet tanager, three.
White-bellied swallow, one.
Bohemian waxwing, one.
Waxwing, twenty-three. 
Great northern shrike, one.
Pine grosbeak, one.
Snow bunting, fifteen.
Tree sparrow, two.
White-throated sparrow, one.
Bobolink, one.
Meadow lurk, two.
Baltimore oriole, nine.
Purple grackle, five.
Bluejay, five.
Swallow-tailed flycatcher, one.
Kingbird, one.
Kingfisher, one.
Pileated woodpecker, one.
Red-headed woodpecker, two.
Golden-winged woodpecker, twenty-one.
Acadian owl, one.
Carolina dove, one.
Pinnated grouse, one.
Ruffed grouse, two.
Quail, sixteen.
Helmet quail, two.
Sanderling, five
Big yellowlegs, one.
Green heron, one.
Virginia rail one.
Laughing gull, one.
Common tern, twenty-one.
Black tern. one.
Grebe, seven.

It is evident that, in proportion to the number of hats seen, the list of birds given is very small; but in most cases mutilation rendered identification impossible.  Thus, while one afternoon 700 hats were counted and on them but 20 birds recognized, 543 were decorated (?) with feathers of some kind. Of the 158 remaining, 72 were worn by young or middle aged ladies and 86 by ladies in mourn­ing or elderly ladies, or—

Percentage of hats with feathers…………………..77
Without feathers……………………………….10
Without feathers, worn by ladies in mourning or elderly ladies……………………………………..12”

*from “Victorian and Edwardian Fashion:  A Photographic Survey” – by Alison Gernsheim

Published in: on January 12, 2011 at 7:24 pm  Comments (41)  
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41 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Quite informative! Fashion sure is weird, sometimes.

  2. Oh that is just grisly. And some of those birds are quite large… how…? n/m I probably don’t want to know. Feathers is one thing, but entire birds? Ewww.

  3. Abby,

    Weird indeed.

  4. DD,

    Tell me about it. I wonder about the person who first awoke one day and thought, “Gee. I’ll slay a bird and stick it on my hat.”

  5. Reminds me of Neville’s grandmother vulture hat.

  6. We can thanks ourselves lucky that Bjork didn’t realize real birds could be used for the purposes of fashion when she was contemplating what to wear for the 2001 Oscars. Small mercies, I suppose.

    In a hundred years, social commentators will be looking at Ugg boots and laughing their heads off maniacally.

  7. Ralfast, I love how everything reminds you of Harry Potter! 🙂

  8. BigWords,

    I know! That dress was…well, it will live in infamy. I love creativity and individuality, but that was just…okay, I’ll be kind and leave it at that.

    Hee hee. Okay, I must admit I have Uggish-type boots. I walk a LOT, and therefore, comfort for my feet comes first in the winter. But I’ll freely admit they won’t win any shoe-beauty awards! My feet adore them, though. 🙂

  9. “At present the bonnets and the brains they cover are too often not unfit combinations.”

    *snork* — yeah, that pretty much covers my feelings on this particular moment in fashion.

    I suspect one day we’ll look on skinny jeans with the same sort of bewildered horror.

  10. Still better that the fashion in the 80’s

  11. Heh, which is more heinous? Leg warmers, or dead birds on the head? 🙂

  12. In a fashion battle between leg warmers and hats with dead birds, the winners are all blind…

  13. Oh my! What an interesting bit of history. The idea of wearing a dead bird on my head isn’t particularly lovely. Indeed, what were those ladies thinking! It makes me wonder how such a fashion began in the first place.

  14. Amy, I love the line you quoted. It gave me a good laugh when I initally read it.

  15. Eek. The 80s fashions. I shuddered at the pastel Miami Vice fashions and the over-the-top big hair and dresses of Dynasty back then…and time has not softened my opinion.

  16. Brownpapergal,

    Exactly! Did someone find their pet bird dead in its cage and think, “Oh, poor darling Tweetie! oh, I know! I shall have him stuffed and pinned on my hat.”

    And then, however it started, so many followed blindly. Another reason why I am so glad I don’t follow trends. Oh, I’ll wear something “in” if I like it, but never “just because it is in.”.

  17. Please don’t hate me but I love these hats and collecting hats. I normally don’t think about the poor animals just about how it look on me. That might be a little selfish but if I would start to think where everything come from I probably wouldn’t eat at all or wear any clothing, and be walking or using a horse to take me around. I think it is okay for the use of animals, but it should be a law like they have with some rare species…only a certain amount can be tamper with.

  18. It’s okay, Starting Over.

    We all have our own beliefs on a whole range of different ethical issues. I firmly follow the “live and let live”- motto.

    btw, I love hats too. Well, sans birds. 😉

  19. 🙂 Thank you for not being upset. As was typing what I mention earlier I felt like I was dodging bullets:)

  20. I’ll have to find it again but I’ve been reading “A Woman Rice Planter”. The author visits New York and comments on how silly the fashions look and that to blindly following someone else’s fashion sense is just silly. I’ll try and find the exact quote.

  21. O geez, this left me speechless! Poor birds!

    Bizarrely interesting! : )


  22. I wish hats like this were still in fashion. I could seriously get down with some peacock feathers.

  23. Thanks for sharing that, Lyra!

  24. Em,

    My sentiments exactly!

  25. Colby,

    heh. I just pictured you and Starting Over shopping together. 😉

  26. That would be cool, peacock are so beautiful. The peacock hat would match my peacock earrings….Now I don’t think they kill every bird for their feather. At least I hope not:(

  27. Oh, yeah. If it’s just plucking a feather, I have no problem with it.

    I bet your peacock earrings are beautiful. That’s something I would wear. 🙂

  28. I’m sure you can wear those peacock feather earrings guilt-free, the birds drop feathers. Many places keep the birds so they can get the feathers to sell, they have their own supply that way 😉

  29. Then with gene manipulations they should make many birds like the Peacock so that they don’t have to slaughter them.
    That remind me of a post I need to write perhaps later or tomorrow on gene manipulation. Hubby and I are always watching the Discovery channel. His choice…he say I watch too much junk tv, lol

  30. DD,

    That’s a good point.

    Starting Over,

    I love those kind of channels, especially the National Geographic.

  31. Your up early?

  32. I lake the fake birds you can get for crafts projects. I use them in a lot of the Victorian decor I create. The next time my husband and I do the Fort reenacting, I’m so donning a bird in my hat. 😉 It would be perfect, because we reenact 1865-89.

  33. Jessica,

    I think it’s so cool that you do Victorian reenactments.

    Is there a particular reason why you chose the years between 1865-89? Is that the period you feel most drawn to?

  34. I love posts like these for the same reason I love my shoe-a-day calendar. The fashions are fun to look at, but I certainly couldn’t be convinced to wear something like a dead bird on my head or stiletto heels!

  35. Hey Dominique!

    I hear you about stilettos. Fun to wear in certain….rooms 😉 But I can’t imagine walking around in them. And the heights are getting more and more insane.

    Doctors are claiming women are killing their feet by wearing such shoes on a regular basis. Which doesn’t surprise me.

  36. We do 1865-89, because those were the years the Fort was most active. My husband and are each deferents of the original settlers of the town we live in. When Austin’s father passed, we inherited the his family’s farmstead much sooner than planned (the man was healthier than anyone else I knew when he had the accident). Now we live on the oldest farmstead in Kansas that still has the same family living on it. We even still have the original homesteader’s claim from 1873. Since our families settled around the same time as the Fort came into existence, it’s fun to dress up and live in our ancestors’ shoes for awhile. I’ll have to post a picture up from the Fort sometime.

  37. Jessica,

    Very sorry to hear about the early loss of your loved one. But the history of your family’s house is fascinating. I’m sure I’m not the only one who would love to see pictures of it.

  38. Great post – we learned about this thru collecting early 1900s real photo postcards – many women wearing these hats had their portraits taken. Thanks for such helpful information! Postcardiva.blogspot.com

  39. Thank you so much, Postcardiva!

    Very glad you stopped over here. 🙂

  40. Looks like Neanderthals had the idea to use bird feathers too: http://io9.com/#!5766569

  41. Ooh. Thanks for sending that link. I wonder if there is a connection with Shamanism?

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