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.
Brown thrush, one.
Blackburnion warbler, one.
Blackpoll warbler, three.
Wilson’s black-capped flycatcher, three.
Scarlet tanager, three.
White-bellied swallow, one.
Bohemian waxwing, one.
Great northern shrike, one.
Pine grosbeak, one.
Snow bunting, fifteen.
Tree sparrow, two.
White-throated sparrow, one.
Meadow lurk, two.
Baltimore oriole, nine.
Purple grackle, five.
Swallow-tailed flycatcher, 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.
Helmet quail, two.
Big yellowlegs, one.
Green heron, one.
Virginia rail one.
Laughing gull, one.
Common tern, twenty-one.
Black tern. one.
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, worn by ladies in mourning or elderly ladies……………………………………..12”
*from “Victorian and Edwardian Fashion: A Photographic Survey” – by Alison Gernsheim