‘Plumes and Feathers in Fashion’ at the Bowes Museum focuses on the importance and beauty of plumage used in the fashion industry to create mesmerising artistic masterpieces throughout the ages. Feathered creations have been utilised for both fashionable wardrobe pieces such as dresses and coats, alongside items such as fans and other accessories. In the past feathers have been noticed for their value and have emerged to symbolise liberation and freedom in relation to humankind for the feather is iconic of the unique flight of the bird kingdom. The exhibition sees pieces created from legendary fashion labels in the industry such as Alexander McQueen, Thierry Mugler, Jean Paul Gaultier, Christian Dior, Prada and many more.
The opening piece of the exhibition is immediately captivating and draws the viewer further into the room as you are overwhelmed by a dazzling outstretched pair of wings erupting from a black dress in front of you. With a black velvet bodice, the butterfly pattern on the back cut-out is made from peacock feathers, eagle feathers, rooster feathers and feathers from a bird of paradise; accompanied with a set of silk velvet gloves. The wings are rich in colour, presenting an exotic butterfly on a human body manikin. The piece is designed by Thierry Mugler as part of his Autumn/ Winter Haute Couture collection in 1997/98. This image of the ‘bird woman’ is reminiscent of the Romantic period when women and birds were paired to portray innocence and fragility. However, this piece is controversial in using the same coupling to present empowerment, mystery and seduction.
The Plumassier concept is described on information boards and books. Dating back to the 18th and 19th centuries, the craft of processing feathers was limited knowledge known only to the feather processors or plumassiers. Before using feathers for a creation they would be cleaned using soap or another detergent and once the feathers are dried they are sorted out and dyed or bleached. Artists and designers have most commonly used feathers from birds such as the peacock, heron, ostrich and even the eagle. The exhibition sees all of these feathers incorporated into the pieces displayed. From the second half of the nineteenth century more exotic bird species were used as Britain became the epicentre of feather trade in the world.
The 1920s saw the birth of flapper dresses, (think Gatsby and you’ve got it), which were accompanied by extravagant accessories such as feather boas and feather fans. In the early 19th century France, feather fans were seen as a luxury item to be worn at balls and parties by royalty and the bourgeoisie. This particular fan interested me as the small hummingbird is engulfed in the cloud of white downing feathers; the juxtaposition of the two is interesting as it contrasts two different colours and types of feathers next to one another. A beautiful peacock fan was displayed next to a Prada Spring/ Summer 2005 collection peacock dress in one cabinet, which caught my eye. Male peacock feathers are one of the most iconic feathers in the world with many connotations. The peacock feather has biblical, Christian and mythological connotations and thus is a powerful symbol when used in artistic fashion work.
My favourite piece at the exhibition was an Alexander McQueen dress designed by Sarah Burton as part of the Spring/ Summer 2011 collection. The piece’s bodice was made with goose feathers and the skirt in ostrich feathers, thus creating a beautiful pastel coloured dress with a thick layering of feathers which created a soft and delicate texture. McQueen was said to be fascinated by feathers, trying to ‘transpose the beauty of a bird to women’ in his work. Another beautiful dress was a Nina Ricci designed by Oliver Theyskens as part of their Autumn/ Winter 2007/8 collections. The dress featured a silk train with swan wings embellished with ostrich feathers, chicken feathers and swan down on the back. Symbolic of the white swan, this piece contains cultural references to Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake. The dress has strands flowing off of it, which gives an interesting texture, and imperfect look to it compared to the thick and tightly packed feathers that we see in McQueen’s work.
‘Plumes and Feathers in Fashion’ runs at the Bowes Museum until 19th April
Photographs: Francesca Dale