This month we opened a mini-exhibition called Feathermania: Fashion to Die For based on one of the chapters in History Curator Claire Regnault’s recent book, Dressed: Fashionable Dress in Aotearoa New Zealand from 1840 to 1910.
Here, Claire describes some of the objects in the exhibition in more detail, including some of the problems associated with the popularity of rare bird feathers and the impact on their population as well as society.
Feathers formed an integral part of a fashionable woman’s wardrobe throughout the second half of the nineteenth century. Sourced from birds across the globe, feathers and sometimes even whole birds, came to adorn everything from hats and mantles to tippets, muffs, and even jewellery.
At the height of what became known as ‘feathermania’ in the late nineteenth century, an American retail journalist went so far as to declare that ‘A well-dressed woman nowadays is as fluffy as a downy bird fresh from the nest’.
The downside of ‘plumiferous’ fashion and ‘murderous millinery’
This immense appetite for ‘plumiferous’ fashion led to the decimation of bird populations around the world and a call to put a stop to ‘murderous millinery’.
Aotearoa New Zealand – a country once known as ‘Birdland’ – was right in the mix. William Docherty was a prospector, miner and bird hunter based at Ōkārito, on the West Coast of the South Island. He advised Thomas Potts, a Canterbury runholder and naturalist, that by the close of 1871 he had killed over 2,200 kiwi in order, as Pott’s recorded, to ‘furnish material for muffs for frivolous women’. For rare species such as the little spotted kiwi, Docherty could earn up to £1 per skin. 
Docherty was just one bird hunter operating in the South Island, and one man in an extensive supply chain that spanned the globe.
Horrified at the numbers, Potts began to lobby for legislative protection for New Zealand’s native birds from hunters and their dogs, museum collectors and ‘that deformed thief fashion’.
The Animal Protection Act of 1872, which was being promoted by the country’s acclimatisation societies, was primarily geared towards protecting introduced game birds outside of the identified game season, rather than native species.
Muffs, Tippets, and Cuffs, oh my!
Meanwhile, in Wellington in 1873, Elizabeth and Hector Liardet established a ‘feather furriery’ specialising in making ‘Muffs, Tippets, Cuffs, Ladies’ Headdresses &c’ from the skins of New Zealand land and sea birds.
The Evening Post enthusiastically reported that while ‘Unkind punsters might insinuate that the community was already amply supplied with muffs… any lady who saw one of the seagull muffs manufactured by Mrs Liardet would immediately think otherwise. These muffs are made from seagull skins, the feathers being of dazzling whiteness… They are much superior to any imported articles of the kind’.
James Hector and international exposure
The Liardets’ feather accessories caught the eye of James Hector, Director of the Colonial Museum, an antecedent of Te Papa.
Hector was so taken with the couples’ work that he invited them to exhibit in the New Zealand section of the 1876 Philadelphia International Exhibition, for which he had been appointed commissioner.
To emphasise the connection between the Liardets’ feather accessories and their raw materials, illustrations from A History of the Birds of New Zealand (1873) by Dr Walter Buller were hung above the Liardets’ wares, located to the left in this photo.
The Liardets went on to exhibit at the international exhibitions in Sydney (1879–80) and Melbourne (1880–81), and the Indian & Colonial Exhibition, which was held in London in 1886, and in Paris in 1889. At the latter, a muff made from the skin of a king penguin caught the public’s eye.
Count Jouffroy d’Abbans, Consul for France to New Zealand from 1885 to 1889, claimed to have had ten thousand offers to purchase the latter, which he sold for a handsome price. In a letter to Liardet, he stated that he had ‘little doubt but that New Zealand stuffed birds and skins would find a ready market in Paris’.
But Liardet was already aware of this; in 1885 he advised a reporter that he had sold £30,000 worth of articles during his time in business, the majority of which had been sent to England, America and the Continent.
In the 1890s, the anti-feather lobby began to intensify internationally. In Britain, the Society for the Protection of Birds (SPB) chose to target female consumers directly rather than focusing on legislation or the industry, for as member Eliza Phillips asserted, ‘It is our money – women’s money that tempts bird slaughterers to continue their cruel work at home and abroad’.
They sought to make feather-wearing not only unfashionable but ‘vulgar’ and asked their members ‘to refrain from wearing the feathers of any bird not killed for the purposes of food, the ostrich excepted’.
To this end, they recruited ‘influencers’ such as the Duchess of Portland and Queen Alexandra. Information on the society’s activities, including details of its latest campaigns, was relayed to New Zealand readers through regular newspaper reports.
In New Zealand, legislative action was slowly coming into play. Full protection was extended to most of New Zealand’s native birds in 1910, when the following provision was added to the Animals Protection Amendment Act 1910: ‘Every person who destroys, or injures, or captures any bird which is indigenous to New Zealand, or who robs or destroys the nest of any such bird, is liable to a fine not exceeding twenty pound.’
After the First World War which witnessed the collapse of the international feather market, Britain finally passed the Plumage Act of 1921, which banned the importation of plumage, if not its sale or its wearing.
1. Quoted in Sarah Abrevaya Stein, Plumes: Ostrich feathers, Jews, and a lost world of global commerce, New Haven, 2008, p. 20.
2. TH Potts, ‘On the Birds of New Zealand’, Transactions and Proceedings of the New Zealand Institute 1872., Transactions and Proceedings of the Royal Society of New Zealand, Volume 5, 1872, 1 January 1872, p. 193.
3. Ross Galbreath, Walter Buller, p. 143. GP Books, 1989
4. TH Potts, ‘On the Birds of New Zealand’, p. 193. 1870
5. Protection of Certain Animals Act 1861, Birds Protection Act 1862, Wild Birds Protection Act 1864, which defined native duck and pigeon as game. See Colin Miskelly, ‘Legal protection of New Zealand’s indigenous terrestrial fauna: An historical review’, Tuhinga 25, 2014, p. 34 and Ross Galbreath, Walter Buller, p. 82. GP Books, 1989
6. Advertisement, Evening Post, 31 May 1875, 1.
7. ‘Muffs’, Evening Post, 20 August 1873, p. 2.
8. R Rice, ‘Conversazione in the Colonial Museum’, Journal of the Royal Society of New Zealand, 47:1, 2017, p. 45.
9. Evening Post, 7 January 1890, p. 3.
10. Hawera & Normanby Star, 9 July 1885, p. 2.
11. Quoted in Tessa Boase, Mrs Pankhurst’s Purple Feather, p. 60. Auram, 2018
12. Constitution of the Society for the Protection of Birds, in Tessa Boase, Mrs Pankhurst’s Purple Feather, p. 71. Auram, 2018
13. ‘Protection of Birds: A letter from the Queen’, New Zealand Times, 4 May 1906, p. 2.
14. Colin Miskelly, ‘Legal protection of New Zealand’s indigenous terrestrial fauna’, pp. 28–29, fig. 1. Tuhinga 25, 2014
15. Quoted in Colin Miskelly, ‘Legal protection of New Zealand’s indigenous terrestrial fauna’, p. 31. Tuhinga 25, 2014
Feathermania: Fashion to die for is on Level 3 at Te Papa until April 2022.
Dressed: Fashionable Dress in Aotearoa New Zealand from 1840 to 1910, by Claire Regnault, Te Papa Press (2021)