I finally found time to go to MOMU (Mode Museum – Fashion Museum) to check out the Birds of Paradise: Plumes & Feathers in Fashion exhibit! All of the pieces were so beautiful, feminine, and luxurious. It was amazing to see how the feathers were so masterfully crafted. The exhibit includes pieces from Chanel, Dior, Thierry Mugler, Alexander McQueen and Yves St. Laurent. If you’re in Antwerp before the the 24th of August, you should definitely check it out!
From the guidebook:
Birds of Paradise is a tribute to the elegance and refinement of plumes and feathers used in the fashion industry. Thanks to their beauty, fragility, value and agility they had various connotations and were used throughout history for a variety of fashionable wardroves, both as an accessory and as part of the entire silhouette. The exhibition addresses aspects such as refinement, luxury, freedom, modernism, femininity, lightness, but also themes like lost innocence and romance.
Whereas in the past feathers were generally appreciated for their preciousness and fragility, contemporary designers now see freedom and spirituality in their agility. The perfection of a feather or the absolute control of a bird in full flight has been an inspiration not only for designers, but also for photographers and artists.
I. Birds of Paradise
The opening gown of this exhibition was designed by Thierry Mugler. A huge butterfly is suggested by means of feathers in the open back of the dress. this way, a link is created between the butterfly, woman and bird in a surreal creation that emphasises the woman’s uniqueness and exotic nature. She herself is thus presented as a bird of paradise.
The image of the ‘femme oiseau’ (bird woman) has been a popular theme ever since the era of Romanticism. In those days, women were compared to birds, the symbol of innocence and lightness. In this case, however, it looks more like a seductive femme fatale due to the exotic and bold plumage.
Dating back to the 17th and 18th century the craft of processing feathers in Paris was limited to the feather worders or plumassiers who had their own Guild. An apprentice had to work in the business for six years and produce a masterpiece before he could become a master.
The most common species that were used were the ostrich, peacock and heron. Ostrich feathers used to be extremely expensive, but in the 19th century the number of peacocks increased spectacularly – peaking at the beginning of the 20th century. Most ostrich feathers came from ostrich farms in South Africa. Since the second half of the 19th century increasingly more bird species were used, both European ones and the more exotic species. London was the capital of the feather trade.
Paris formed and still forms the bulward of feather processing. Here you can also find the Maison Lemarié that make feather creations for numerous Haute Couture collections. Maison Lemarié specialises in processing and applying feathers and creating artifical flowers. In some abstract patterns and applications the feathers are unrecognisable. This demonstrates the high level of technical expertise and the innovative methods used to process feathers.
Since the renaissance feather fans have been used in European courts, where they are considered to be a luxury item and a status symbol. In the early 19th century, French Royal Courts would organise balls with historic themes that referred to the ‘ancien regime’, the era before the French revolution. As a result the feather fan became popular again. Queens and princesses – and in their imitation the rich bourgeois – liked to be portrayed holding a feather hand fan. an ostrich feather hand fan was particularly popular.
Because of their fragility, feathers are often used as a collar, and are sometimes intended to look like a fur imitation. This use was primarily to be seen in the 19th and 20th century.
Especially marabou feathers were popular for this purpose, because they look a lot like fur thanks to their fluffiness. In the 20th century feathers were used for collars until the 1960’s when Cristobal Balenciaga and later on also Yves Saint Laurent started using feathers to cover entire dresses. To date, many fashion designers continue to use feathers in numerous creations, ranging from feathers to create collars and large volumes covering almost half of the silhouette.
Feathers and feather patterns are very suitable to create a trompe l’oeil effect. They can also be treated in such a way that they do not even resemble a feather anymore. In addition, one can work with feather prints or use other materials that are made to look like feathers. Thanks to the wide variety and different kinds of feathers, the opportunities are endless. Because feathers are often used to imitate furn, they are sometimes extended by or repaced by other animal materials that create a feather coat effect.
The peacock, especially the male peacock with its impressive feather coat, is an animal with a lot of cultural connotations thanks to its spectacular feathers. In the Christian iconography the peacock stands for immortality and the resurrection of Christ. In the East, it is a sign of prosperity. And in the classic mythology the peacock is the attribute of the Goddess Hera, symbol of the scorned wife. Peacock featheres are also associated with hundred-eyed Argus, whose eyes were placed on peacock feathers by Hera after he died.
In the west the peacock is often seen as a symbol of vanitas (pride), which can be a prelude to downfall and therefore also given a negative connotation. As a symbol of pride, luxury an dwealth, peacock feathers have been a popular pattern for interior fabrics and accessories such as fans. Today designers gratefully use the multi-coloured feather in fascinating creations.
In the roaring twenties the fashion scene changed drastically. Dresses became shorter, flatter and straighter. Women wore their hair in a bob and the flapper girls, the fashionable young emancipated women, wore flapper dresses – vest dresses, often covered with beaded embroidery or sequins, with a boa as accessory or a bright coloured, almost luminous, fan with ostrich feathers.
Gabrielle Chanel introduced a more sober and graphic use of the feather: a simple aigrette or a single cut and varnished rooster feather decorated the hat in a way to express modernism. In the 1930s Chanel used abstract feather patterns in her clothes and she wore modern dresses with a feather print. She created jewellery in the shape of a feather: a modern interpretation of the feather was born.
In the 1930s we see feathers turning up in Hollywood’s glamorous movie costumes. Because of the then strict American censorship on underwear and nudity in Hollywood movies, moviemakers were looking for a substitute erotic element to cover a woman’s body. The feather was a perfect solution. Women in bed scenes often wear a bed jacket covered in feathers.
IX. Marlene Dietrich
The showpiece of this exhibition is Marlene Dietrich’s swan down coat. She first wore it in 1957 at the Sands Hotel in Las Vegas and numerous times thereafter in the 1960s. The feathers of over 300 swans were needed to make the coat, which was 360cm long from collar to tail. The coat was worn over a dress that was made with 227,000 rhinestones. The designer, Jean Louis of Hollywood, was head designer for Columbia Pictures and had worked wtih Marlene Dietrich since 1953 to make her movie costumes, personal dresses and the outfits she wore in her shows in Las Vegas. Dietrich, the ultimate perfectionist, was a very demanding client and didn’t leave much room for the designer’s creativity. She considered her costumes to be works of art and she took very good care of them.
X. White & Black Swan
The symbolism of the white and black swan is a cultural reference to the two swans in Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake (1875-1878), where one ballerina dances the two versions of the swan. It is a fairy tale about Odette. She is turned into a white swan by a magician and falls in love with a swan prince. Unfortunately, Odette is ousted by the black swan, Odile, who eventually lures the prince away. The white swan stands for innocence, romance and youth personified by Odette, who dies at the end of the story. The black swan represents the threatening, demonic and erotic powers of a femme fatale who ultimately prevails, but in the end loses her lover.
The duality between good and evil is very much present in the dramatic oeuvre of British designer Alexander McQueen. Since childhood he was fascinated by birds in flight, he says: ‘Birds in flight fascinate me. I admire eagles and falcons. I am inspired by a feather’s shape 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.’
XI. Ann Demeulemeester
Feathers, and especially pigeon feathers are part of Ann Demeulemeester’s signature and her world. Since her first show in Paris in 1991 feathers have played a major role in her work. They stand for freedom, humbleness an poetry in her work: ‘Ever since I was a child I have had an enormous respect for feathers, and especially for pigeon feathers. To me a pigeon feather is poetry of the mundane, a form of perfection that is to be found on the streets by everyone.’
XIII. Irving Penn
Feathers are popular in film costumes and fashion photography because of their graphic qualities and the playful, seductive touch they bring to the person wearing them. They are often used to bring out a certain characteristic of the woman wearing by portraying her wearing a certain type of feather. The same goes for these two pictures by the famous American fashion photographer Irving Penn.
In the picture Woman in the chicken hat we see his wife, model and muse Lisa Fonssagrives Penn who is playfully portrayed wearing a hat with chicken feathers. In the other picture Mary Jane Russell, one of Penn’s other muses, is drinking a glass of wine. Her headdress with feathers emmphasises the airy and elegant character that marked the fashion of the 1950s.
Ever since the 19th century, shoes and slippers have been trimmed with swan down, but because the feathers are so fragile only very few of these have remained intact. Although feathers are very seductive and elegant, there are only very few originals (intact) left with feathers. Ladies’ shoes, such as sandals and pumps, only have a small piece of surface to attach the feather to. It also requires a lot of handwork and feathers are easily damaged.
Some experiments with feathers on shows were conducted at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century, but that was mainly after WWII. That’s why this group was entirely dedicated to Roger Vivier’s shoes, the most famous shoe designer in haute couture, who started his career at Christian Dior (1953-1963) and went on to start his own label in 1963. Since 2003, Bruno Frisoni is the fashion house’s creative director and he has continued Vivier’s experiments with feathers.
In the 20th century feathers are very popular as a material for haute couture gowns: Chanel, Dior, Yves Saint Laurent and Cristobal Balenciaga each use feathers in a special way, they experiment with the different textural effects that feathers can create: sometimes very abstract and graphic, sometimes very soft and voluminous, also the length of the feathers can vary greatly. Because rooster and chicken feathers are not very expensive and because they are easy to manipulate in shape and colour, they are very popular for creating different textures: from imitation bird of paradise feathers to crenelated types, from silk-like plumes to dramatic volumes.
To date it is impossible to imagine the catwalk without feathers, whose texture still exudes luxury.
XX. Yves Saint Laurent
The exhibition concludes with a group of silhouettes created by one of the most important designers of the 20th century: Yves Saint Laurent. The way he used feathers marked a new era in the 1960s. Moreover, the silhouettes demonstrate that he continued to use feathers until his career ended in the 2000s.
Yves St. Laurent not only marked the emancipation of women (e.g. his smoking for women), but also of the feather. It left the ornamental register and has gone on to cover the entire body and fly around like an irresistible cloud. Just like in the 1920s, the 1960s stand for freedom, and women’s liberation. The clothes are loosened from the body and it is freed of every form of limitation. The feather emphasises this simplification as a perfect symbol of lightness. A feather cape by Yves Saint Laurent, that he created later on in his career, suggests the disruptive image of an eagle with its wings folded. It is personification of the allegory of the bird-woman: elusive, flighty, incomprehesible and mysterious.