The first animal protection groups were initially formed as a reaction to such acts of “murderous millinery.” Environmental justice campaigns were originally designed to counter the use of feathers and wildlife in hat decoration. One writer in 1875 declared that the beauty of these birds “tempts the most tender-hearted to condone the practice. It was reckoned in 1895 that some twenty to thirty-million dead birds are imported annually to supply the demands of murderous millinery.” Such excesses and extremes galvanized a group of ladies from Manchester to form the For Fin and Feather group in 1889, later to become the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (the first animal rights group).
The bird protection trend soon spread to the United States, where many women took fashion cues from British publications. The Audubon Society was formed in Boston in 1896, when Harriet Lawrence Hemenway initiated a movement among her friends to stop wearing hats with bird feathers on them. The organized efforts in Boston caught on, and women across the country started promoting milliners who sold bird-less hats, lobbying for protective legislation, and working to change what was considered fashionable. Soon, many American women wore "audubonnets," the term given to the non-feathered hats that the Audubon Society ladies encouraged milliners to make as an alternative.
Soon ‘acceptable’ feathers included only those from domestic birds, such as cockerels, geese, or ducks. Some birds were even bred especially to provide feathers for millinery displays without their killing being required; the most common being pheasants and ostriches.
As ‘murderous millinery’ soon made many of the more objectionable feathered fashions defunct, feathers have now taken on a more sinister and confounding role in both fashion and art. I felt compelled to revisit some of this early writing about plumassiers when I saw images of artworks by Emily Valentine Bullock. Bullock uses feathers in a unique style, implementing them in her sculptures of small dogs. On one hand, it’s disconcerting to see the feather simply as a sculptural material—on the other, it’s even more troublesome to see the form of one animal made from the parts of another. Her work is brilliant, if not a bit shocking just for its simple audacity.