Archives for the month of: September, 2013


Peacocks and their feathers have been working their magic on fashion for centuries. Different cultures have attributed special meanings to this bird; often connected to immortality. Peacocks are able to eat poisonous plants and survive hence they, or their feathers, are often used to symbolize resurrection. The fact that they shed their impressive long feathers each year  only to grow back fresh, bright and beautiful ones, makes them the perfect symbol for renewal.

In western culture peacocks are also associated with men who consider themselves particularly well dressed or good-looking and who like to show off. “Pavoneggiarsi” (to display oneself in front of others in italian. Comes from the word “pavone” which means peacock). It is of course only the male peacock who has the spectacularly feathered tail and who displays it when he thinks it necessary…

Rex Silver, Peacock Feather textile for Liberty, 1900c

Rex Silver for Liberty, Peacock feather textile design, 1900c

Peacock fashion frenzy seems to begin at the time of the Pre-Raphaelite and the Arts and Crafts movement  in England in the second half of the nineteenth Century.

William Morris in his textile designs and his wife Jane Morris in her embroideries and tapestries often use the peacock motif. By 1900 it becomes THE textile design (see above) that best represents the Liberty culture of those years. And it is still synonymous of the company today.


Liberty case, 2013

Peacocks – as symbol and as motif – becomes hugely popular in the first decades of the 20th Century. They appear in and on fashionable clothing too

Weeks, evening dress peacockfeathers, 1910, Met NY

Maison Weeks, silk evening dress, 1910c, Metropolitan museum of art, New York, USA

Lalique, pendant, gold, enamel, pearl, diamonds,1901, Met NY

R. Lalique, pendant jewel with peacocks, 1901, Metropolitan museum of art, New York, USA

In more recent times peacocks are still going strong – there seems to be a fashion subcultural trend there somewhere

PeacockDress_McQueen 2008-9

Alexander McQueen, peacock dress, A/W 2008-09

and lastly one of the most expensive wedding gowns ever made – just to confirm the POWER OF THE PEACOCK lives on!

Vera Wang,peacock-feathers-wedding-dress-china-2009, cosst over a million dollars

Vera Wang, peacock wedding dress, 2009 at bridal Fair in China


att John Bettes,Queen E I,1580-86,NPG

Att. John Bettes, Queen Elisabeth I, 1580-6c, National Portrait Gallery, London, Uk

The fashion for feather fans spread across Europe by the last quarter of the 16th Century. Queen Elisabeth I, in England, had a great number and it is very likely that they came, via fairs and merchants, from Italy – Venice, Milan and Genoa had specialised in this kind of luxury item made up of part local craftsmanship and part imported exotic materials.

By the following century feathers were not only added to accessories but had also become part of  textile iconography

brocaded silk for clothing, peacock feather patern, 1600-1620c, V&A

peacock-feather patterned silk brocade, italian, 1600-20c, Victoria and Albert museum, London, UK

Feathers continue to appear in textile patterns up to present day.

The silk below is typical of the rococo period – small delicate flowers and soft feathers rather than the stiffer, more regimented baroque ones above

Rococo french silk, VEA

French dress silk, 1750c, Victoria and Albert museum, London, UK

In the 19th century feathers continue to be added to accessories such as bonnets and fans (still much in use, especially for the evening)

feather and stuffed bird fan with ivory handle, 1880s, V&A

Fan, feathers, stuffed birds and ivory handle, 1880c, Victoria and Albert museum, London, UK

but also gradually found their way – stitched, apliquéd, woven – onto and into fashionable clothing.

A hierarchy of plumage emerges: from the rare, exotic and therefore expensive feathers from South America or Far East, right down to the more mundane european varieties. The main difference was in the colours available. However with the introduction of chemical dyes in 1853 this problem was quickly resolved.

latvian feather short coat made of feathers, poss swan down, 1860c, met NY

Short outdoor lady’s coat, swan’s down, 1860s, Metropolitan museum, New York, USA

This extraordinary coat (because its made of worked feathers!!) is a perfect example of the levels reached by the new world of Haute Couture from the 1850s onwards. Designers and their Maisons would attempt to outdo each other by inventing the most intricate and exquisite details.

Emile Pingat Paris, mantle in wool, velvet, silk and osttrich feather trim, 1891c,LACMA USA

Emile Pingat, evening cape, 1891, L.A.C.M.A., Los Angeles, USA

Maison Emile Pingat is a wonderful example of the highest level Parisian fin de siecle haute Couture.  Several materials (silk, velvet, wool, metal thread, beads, feathers, lace and so on) were combined into unique pieces by the most creative and skilled craftsmen/women.



Emile Pingat Paris,evening mantle, wool silk metal and feathers, 1891c, Met NY

Emile Pingat, Paris, evening mantle, mixed materials including feathers, 1891c, Metropolitan museum, New York, USA

The presence of feathers in fashionable European dress does not become apparent until the 16th century. When feathers appear they are not on the dress but in the form of accessories, in particular ladies’ fans. These feathers are testimony to the growing interest for exotic objects coming from overseas as well as the ever-increasing desire for public display of personal wealth. Luxury fashion taken to extremes both by women and men.

gilt brass fan handle, 1550c, venice, V&A

Metal (gilt brass) fan handle, probably made in Venice circa 1550, Victoria and Albert  museum, London, UK

By the 1540s a new fashion trend had emerged as we can see from the portraits below, all from northern Italy (evidence of this trend elsewhere in the next post). Hand-held fans made out of a gold frame and large, soft exotic feathers. They were worn hanging from the waist on a gold chain and would be occasionally picked up and used. In the portraits of the period they were luxury statement pieces, attesting to the level of sophistication and wealth of the sitter. They were as important as the silk, embroidery and overall fashionableness of the dress worn. The feathers used tended to be ostrich, either black (see below) or white or dyed in other colours. At the same time as this trend is taking place we also have a strong presence of ostrich eggs being used by European craftsmen. Nothing wasted. Other feathers such as swan’s down were used – the important thing was the sensual tactile aspect of them.

Moretto da Brescia, lady in white,1540c,Wash nat gal USA

Moretto da Brescia, Lady in white, 1540c, Washington National  Gallery, USA

L.Lotto, Laura da Pola 1543-44

Lorenzo Lotto, Laura da Pola, 1543-4c, Pinacoteca di Brera, Milan, IT

A few years on and Italian artisans had become even more refined –  producing two or three tone exotic feather fans for their demanding clientele

G.B.Moroni, Isotta Brembati 1552-53 (palazzo Moroni Bg)

Gian Battista Moroni, Isotta Brembati, 1552c, Palazzo Moroni, Bergamo, IT

Bernardino Campi,cremonese,dama,fine 1560s,met NY

Bernardino Campi, Lady, 1560c, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, USA

For centuries, probably millennia (but I don’t have the material evidence for you) mankind has been fascinated by bird plumage and has used it as body adornment.  Feathers become imbued with specific meanings, for many ethnic groups they become a fundamental part of the costumes/objects they use to communicate with spirits and gods. They become part of the rituals of life and death.

The use of bird feathers is very much connected to their availability/rarity, as well as their appearance. For example in Europe in the middle ages brightly coloured birds were virtually unknown. The stunning, colourful feathers of Amazonian and Pan-American birds only became known after the “discovery” of the Americas in 1492. These birds (in the Caribbean and Latin American countries) must have charmed the fresh-off-the-ship Europeans with their appearance and song. Soon they became covetable and tradable – dead or alive.  We begin to see feathers in European portraiture, in one form or another, by the early decades of the 1500s. Either they appear as decoration on the attire of savages (thus confirming the use of feathers and the use of specific costume by different ethnic groups in these distant lands. Today we would take this as evidence of developed and communicative local cultures – back then they were just savages dressed in bird feathers and little else).

Vasco Fernandes,Adoration of the Magi,1501-6,Grao Vasco mus, Viseu,Portugal

Vasco Fernandes, Adoration of the Magi, 1501-6c, Grao Vasco museum, Viseu, Portugal

In this Portuguese religious painting of the three kings paying homage to the baby Jesus, we see Balthazar, the traditionally “ethnic” king, represented as an Amazonian chief from deepest Brazil. His facial features and skin tone are a clear indication of his ethnic origin as is the feather crown he wears on his head. He has however been “covered up” for modesty’s sake with a pair of silk breeches in the European tradition.

Occasionally we find portraits of European sitters in ethnic costume which includes feathers

Adrien Hanneman possibly Mary Princess of Orange, 1655c, Franz Hals museum Nethrlands

Adrien Hanneman, possibly Mary Princess of Orange, 1655c, Franz Hals museum, Netherlands

By the 17th century such portraits had become a fashion. In the portrait above Princess Mary is extremely fashionable in a white three-quarter sleeve shiny silk dress. The close-fitting pearl necklace and the pearl drop earings perfectly contemporary. But  she is also wearing an exotic turban vaguely reminiscent of those worn by  Persian pashas or  Indian maharajhas (incidentally both masculine). The turban is topped by large ostrich feathers which have been dyed red. Her body is draped in a cloak made of red/orange, white and black feathers. These are sewn onto a base fabric and the garment is lined in brocaded european silk. The feather-work looks original i.e. made in the Americas to local ethnic tradition. The jewelled  pin used to secure the cloak to the left shoulder is also European. The overall effect is startling and the intention was undoubtedly symbolic. By wearing such incongruous items of ethnic apparel the Princess is alluding to far off places and people. A statement of power made through items of dress associated with power in other cultures  (the chief’s cloak, the high-ranking or aristocrat’s headdress). By mid 1600s european countries such as England and Holland were asserting their power overseas in the name of trade (the East India companies already well established) and soon, imperialism.

high class lady feet unwrapped  High class chinese lady, early 20th C

Without pretending to be an expert on China, chinese culture or history,  in this post I want to muse over some stuff that has grabbed the attention of


 yes an uncomfortable topic. Understanding why they did it is the least of the problems. How they did it is simply horrific – the bones being purposely broken and then the foot tightly  bound in strips of cloth to make it set into a new “desired” shape….not only the pain suffered but also the psychological violence of it takes my breath away. By ritualizing the event and by mystifying the results into the sphere of beauty and desire, girls were bashed and moulded into their adult identity.

In the picture above, the aristocratic woman looks like a china (!) doll with the layers of make-up that hide any expression from her face. The photo was obviously taken after the end of the bound-feet epoch. She sits and displays her naked feet, her toes have grown into the soles creating a little point at the front of the foot. Westerners especially were begining to investigate these obscure chinese traditions and making photographic reportages. Even older women agreed to show their feet, some accepting to become objects of study by the modern western medical world. Hence the x-ray below

769px-Bound_feet_(X-ray) 1890-1923 bound feet x-ray late 19th century China

Of course nobody (except the victim) ever looked at or touched the disfigured feet. Women would wear beautifully crafted little shoes in colourful embroidered silk to hide them. 

bound feet shoes, Queensland museum silk bound feet shoes, Queensland Museum, Australia

So if this was the accepted practice, when, why and how did it end?

A change in attitude was heralded by a woman, a surprizing fact in itself. No feminist revolution but one extremely powerful female who actively ruled China behind a silk screen for the second half of the 19th Century

Dowager-Empress Cixi late 19thC Empress Dowager Cixi, China, late 19th C.

To know more about her and the extent of her power look out for this book to be published October 2013:

Empress Dowager Cixi: The Concubine Who Launched Modern China

Jung Chang, the author of hugely successful “Wild Swans” brings more chinese history out of academia for us all to enjoy.

I am certailny looking foward to reading it!

statue  with hat

Stripes, chinese women past and present, buying women’s underwear in islamic countries, my obsession with the Renaissance – just some of the topics I will be exploring  this autumn.  enjoy!