It is one of many changes undergone by the feather industry, a world that has been entwined with fashion for centuries. While feathers have remained a constant within costume and design – from the Elizabethan court to contemporary figures such as Alexander McQueen – their symbolism, use and effect has altered drastically over the course of history, particularly in the 20th century.
It is this evolution that is the subject of Birds of Paradise. Plumes and Feathers in Fashion, an exhibition that opens today at MoMu in Antwerp. Curated by Karen Van Godtsenhoven, the exhibition displays garments created by designers including Cristóbal Balenciaga, Coco Chanel, Christian Dior, Yves Saint Laurent, Dries Van Noten and Ann Demeulemeester.
"Feathers are always used to express something," says Van Godtsenhoven. "You had the boas and the dancing outfits of the roaring 20s, then in the 60s Yves Saint Laurent used it as a sign of emancipation. By contrast you have the glamorous power dressing of Thierry Mugler in the 80s and Ann Demeulemeester using feathers to express humbleness. There are designers that use feathers as a kind of fur or luxury material, but on the other hand pigeon feathers are a very ordinary material and very cheap."
Historically feathers in dress were used to denote status, and this emphasis on luxury and social standing continued into the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The Belle Époque draped its clothing in feathers as ornament, while the profusion of – and trade in – exotic feathers prompted the formation of animal rights groups such as the UK's RSPB and the USA's Audobon.
Yet many of the works displayed in the MoMu exhibition contrast against this decadence. "Coco Chanel uses feathers in more of a modernist way as a sign of the new simplicity in design, for instance, no longer a showing-off symbol," says Van Godtsenhoven. Working in the 1920s, Chanel used black feathers in a strongly graphic fashion, contrasting against the exuberance of her time.
Others have employed feathers in more symbolic fashion. Yves Saint Laurent's use of ostrich feathers in the 1960s played into notions of sexual liberation, portraying the women who wore his clothing as free birds. Notions of freedom, lightness and elegance began to replace feathers' traditional associations with the sumptuous and luxurious.
The exhibition at MoMu is arranged thematically, with sections split between époques (modernism), techniques (embroidery) and form (fans, hats and accessories). The exhibition is no simple chronology, but rather seeks to track changes and developments in how feathers have been employed in design throughout the 20th and 21st centuries.
This diversity is at the heart of the exhibition and is perhaps most evident in the displayed work of one its most recent featured designers – Alexander McQueen. Feathers and birds were a recurring motif within McQueen's collections, with the designer acknowledging their influence upon his work. “Birds in flight fascinate me," he said in the December 2007 edition of Numéro magazine. "I admire eagles and falcons. I’m inspired by a feather but also its color, its graphics, its weightlessness and its engineering. It’s so elaborate. In fact I try and transpose the beauty of a bird to women.”
"Whereas Saint Laurent was using feathers in a very light way, Alexander McQueen had a very dramatic and threatening use of feathers," says Van Godtsenhoven. "Birds can be a sign of innocence and freedom, but you could always look at vultures, which some of McQueen’s dresses resemble. McQueen said he wanted women to wear something that makes them long stronger. That gives them a hardness. He wanted to give a kind of shield so they weren’t too fragile."
McQueen's cocooning creations, which surrounded women in dramatic, sculptural shapes perhaps best represent the progress that feathers in fashion have made since the late 19th century. What was once a mark of adornment, has become something deeply integrated into the structure and form of garments. Whereas feathers have in the past been used as trimming or as additions to clothing – a boa; handbag; shoes – designers like McQueen have now embedded them within their work.
"What is important to recognise is that there are a variety of birds," says Van Godtsenhoven. "Some are very soft and sweet, some are threatening – there is a variety of meaning. The same is true of their feathers."