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The Transformative, Talismanic Power of Feathers

By Ligaya Mishan

Clockwise from top left model: Erdem hat and coat, price on request. Boris Huang cape, US$24,000, and Roger Vivier shoes, US$1,795. Marc Jacobs coat, US$25,000, and dress, US$2,200, and Versace shoes, US$1,250. Michael Kors Collection boa, US$690, and Christian Louboutin shoes, US$2,895. Marc Jacobs dress, US$20,000, Gigi Burris Millinery headband, US$350, and Christian Louboutin shoes, US$795.
 
Laurence Ellis. Styled by Haidee Findlay-Levin.
Clockwise from top left model: Erdem hat and coat, price on request. Boris Huang cape, US$24,000, and Roger Vivier shoes, US$1,795. Marc Jacobs coat, US$25,000, and dress, US$2,200, and Versace shoes, US$1,250. Michael Kors Collection boa, US$690, and Christian Louboutin shoes, US$2,895. Marc Jacobs dress, US$20,000, Gigi Burris Millinery headband, US$350, and Christian Louboutin shoes, US$795.

Icarus was not the first to wear feathers, but he was perhaps the most hexed by their promise of transformation. According to Greek myth, his father, the architect and inventor Daedalus, desperate for them to escape the wrath of King Minos, built wings out of twine, wax and plumes shed by passing birds — an outfit that might as easily have appeared on a 19th-century cancan dancer at the Moulin Rouge in Paris. Don’t mistake costume for prowess, Icarus was warned, but in the ecstasy of seeing the world from above, he forgot his human limitations and flew too high: When the sun melted the wax, he lost his wings and dropped from the sky.

Since almost the moment humans could walk, we’ve been dissatisfied with our lot, tethered as we are to earth. Flight is a power that in its fullest form — sustained aerial trajectories relying on muscular force, beyond the leaps and glides of lesser beasts — belongs only to insects, bats and those latter-day dinosaurs, birds. And it was to birds alone that feathers were granted: elaborate, fractal-like structures of beta-keratin (a protein whose softer relative, alpha-keratin, manifests in humans as the consolation prize of nails and hair) organized around a central quill with skinny filaments branching out from either side, each in turn supporting its own, tinier branches. On the contour feathers that comprise much of a bird’s covering — whose shape, half leaf, half sail, is what we imagine when we say the word “feather” — these smallest of filaments are held together by microscopic hooks, an astonishment of engineering, which allows the unruffled, streamlined surfaces necessary for flight.

The first wearers of feathers in early history lived alongside the birds whose plumage they borrowed. They named them and knew their ways. But to Europeans in the 16th century, such ornaments had a whiff of fantasy, suggesting a connection to a world far beyond their shores, which they had just begun to explore. In 1522, specimens of bird of paradise — native to the forest canopies of New Guinea — were brought back to Spain by the last surviving ship of Ferdinand Magellan’s voyage around the globe, bearing what one voyager described as “long feathers of different colours.” Although these plumes were likely considered too valuable to have been worn, a widespread desire for dressing with feathers took hold, and a cruel trade to feed it. By the early 20th century, an estimated 300 million birds were dying each year in the service of the Paris fashion industry, according to the fashion historian Kimberly Chrisman-Campbell. Egret feathers cost more per ounce than gold. A few species, including the herring gull and the roseate spoonbill, were brought dangerously close to extinction.

Laurence Ellis. Styled by Haidee Findlay-Levin.The Attico dress, US$4,569, Gigi Burris Millinery headband, US$300, and Boris Huang leis, from top: US$800, US$1,435 and US$1,435.
The Attico dress, US$4,569, Gigi Burris Millinery headband, US$300, and Boris Huang leis, from top: US$800, US$1,435 and US$1,435.

In the beginning of the Western world’s obsession, feathers were for men. Like their counterparts in the avian world, males during the Renaissance — royalty and burghers alike — strutted about in extravagant plumage, from Henry VIII in a feathered beret to Matthäus Schwarz, a dandyish German accountant who once wore a headdress of 32 ostrich feathers that was nearly 18 inches high and more than three feet wide, as chronicled in a record he kept of all his clothes. (The Cambridge University history professor Ulinka Rublack says the look “was part and parcel of a new taste for power.”) Two centuries later, women had mostly claimed the accessory as their own, but even now, military officers continue to wear plumes, like the Italian Bersaglieri, an elite infantry corps who stride into combat — whether in Libya in the early 20th century or Afghanistan this past decade — in helmets with shaggy black grouse feathers hanging off to one side.

Nevertheless, the American conservationist William T. Hornaday, writing in The New York Times in 1913, attributed the decline of bird species solely to women, railing against the “raging, insistent, unappeasable” vanity of the sex. True, women were the primary customers fueling the trade, but it was also women who helped put an end to its wantonness, from Coco Chanel, with her scandalously spare, undecorated straw boaters, to American suffragists who founded Audubon Society chapters in the 1890s and pressured Congress to stop the slaughter of nongame birds. By 1918, the Migratory Bird Treaty Act had banned the hunt, sale and purchase of feathers of most birds in the wild; threatened species rebounded. Today, the feathers that float down fashion’s runways come from domesticated birds and less vivid barnyard fowl — bred not for style but food, with feathers as a byproduct — or are clipped from live ostriches, who grow new ones. Thanks to regulations in the West, American and European designers are able to find feathers from responsible and sustainable sources.

For despite the many vicissitudes of fashion, these adornments still beguile us, bringing otherworldliness to the human form. “Nothing synthetic can replicate something so majestic,” the New York milliner Gigi Burris says. Even a single well-placed feather can make a radical statement. The London milliner Stephen Jones created knit beanies for Marc Jacobs’s fall 2019 show, modeled after the classic American watch cap, so simple they were almost plain-spoken, save for a feather flourish: Some had a lone sea-gull-coloured feather set rakishly askew à la Robin Hood, others a raven-black fountaining tuft resembling a military officer’s hackle. They were thickly settled on dresses and coats, too — one so saturated in feathers, with thousands embroidered onto silk organza, that it almost looked like fur.

In Burris’s work, feathers are similarly manipulated into abstractions of texture and movement on her hats and headpieces. “They have the same spirit as cobwebs,” she says. Traditional plumes might be supplanted by burnt ostrich feathers, hand-dipped in acid to strip off the frizz, leaving the stark outline of spine, as of something fossilized. It’s a modern effect achieved through a technique so arcane Burris had to go to a feather workshop in Italy to find a plumassier (an ornamental feather specialist) experienced enough to do it. In what has become her signature, she curls and twists goose biots — wispy fibres taken from the primary wing feathers, commonly used to tie flies for fishing — until they look “like barbed wire or fireworks.” The trickiness and delicacy of feathers and the close attention they require are part of the appeal, especially at a time when “everything is fast and casual,” Burris says.

Laurence Ellis. Styled by Haidee Findlay-Levin.From left: Michael Kors Collection jacket, US$3,990, Gigi Burris Millinery headband, Boris Huang lei, US$1,435, and Roger Vivier shoes, US$1,595. The Attico dress, US$4,322, Boris Huang lei, US$1,295, and Christian Louboutin shoes. Oscar de la Renta dress, US$22,290, Boris Huang leis, US$1,435 each, and Christian Louboutin shoes.
From left: Michael Kors Collection jacket, US$3,990, Gigi Burris Millinery headband, Boris Huang lei, US$1,435, and Roger Vivier shoes, US$1,595. The Attico dress, US$4,322, Boris Huang lei, US$1,295, and Christian Louboutin shoes. Oscar de la Renta dress, US$22,290, Boris Huang leis, US$1,435 each, and Christian Louboutin shoes.

But feathers are not mere ornaments; they are the way in which tribes ancient and modern impose meaning on their surroundings. The Cashinahua of Peru pluck feathers from the birds they hunt for meat, using as much of the animal as possible, fearful that if they waste such a resource, they might anger the spirits of the forest. As in indigenous cultures around the world, these totems become decoration and medicine at once, with no distinction between the two functions, conferring both status and spiritual protection. The lei hulu (feather leis) made by Boris Huang, a mechanical engineer from Taiwan who moved to Hawaii in 2000 and after years of practice became a master of the art, still retain a talismanic aura. For his intricate garlands, feathers must be hand-tied, one by one, to a cotton cord — which in the old days was made from the bark of the olonā tree — either upright, in the poepoe style, for a fluffiness that evokes the collar of a negligee, or laid flat, in the kāmoe style, to yield a coil as smooth as a snake. The technique is largely unchanged from the precolonial era, when such feathers were reserved for ali‘i (royalty), but Huang’s leis are not a homage to the past, when women of high rank wore lei hulu as a way of asserting their place in society. Rather, his approach is purely artistic, making free use of dye. One lei might be a ring of pure white interrupted by bands of black, frayed at the ends like brush strokes, as if on a white tiger’s pelt. On another, peacock tails might surface out of an impossibly pure yellow, all in a row, their iridescent green evoking dragon scales.

To make a poepoe-style lei, Huang needs around 1,500 feathers; for kāmoe, closer to 2,500. He mixes those from different breeds of chicken, turkey, goose, pheasant and peacock. Long gone are the mamo, a tiny species of honeycreeper native to the islands, sacrificed by the tens of thousands for the great cloak of the 18th-century monarch Kamehameha I, a wonder — and a cautionary tale — of nearly half a million feathers. Now, when Huang has a vision that calls for a particular shape or texture, he waits. Sometimes friends bring him feathers dropped by macaws, which he saves for a lei that might never be made. “It could take years,” he says.

Indeed, a yearning for the pure and perfect architecture of a feather is one that is as old as mankind itself. Plato defined humans as bipeds who lack feathers — a notion that has an analogue in the language of the Mehinaku of Brazil (as recorded by the anthropologist Thomas Gregor), for whom the term metalute, “without feathers,” signifies both something naked and incomplete. When, in 1965, the anthropologist Kenneth M. Kensinger asked members of the Cashinahua why for centuries they had adorned themselves with feathers, they thought him a fool, for the answer was obvious: because feathers are beautiful.

Set design by Jill Nicholls. Bodysuits custom-made by Lars Nord Studio. Casting by Studio Bauman. Models: Adau Mornyang and Ines Lopez at Muse Management, Brittany Noon at Women Management, Zwaan Bijl at the Society Management and Jamie Vogt at Wilhelmina. Movement director: Emma Chadwick at Streeters. Tailor: Gabriella Loeb. Hair: Grace Kim at Joe Management. Digital tech: Sean Greene. Photo assistants: Christopher Rosales and Danny Lim. Set assistant: Todd Knopke. Stylist’s assistant: Kamila Gosiewska