Feathers and Fashion Volume 40.4

ROSEATE SPOONBILL WATERCOLOR (Platalea ajaja) by John James Audubon (1785-1851), circa 1831-32. Purchased for the New-York Historical Society by public subscription from Mrs. John J. Audubon, 1863. Photographs courtesy of the New-York Historical Society. Audubon admired these prehistoric-looking wading birds, the largest North American member of the ibis family. The beauty of their feathers brought the species to the brink of extinction by 1920. They survived after the Audubon Society dispatched wardens to protect them and urged the passage of strict conservation laws. Today, the Roseate Spoonbill is one of the great success stories of the conservation movement.

The centennial of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918 is a milestone for the field of ornithology, but the fashion world deserves to share in the celebrations, too. The passage of the Act—which prohibited the hunting, killing, trading, and shipping of migratory birds and regulated America’s commercial feather trade—was the direct result of women rallying together to resist the fashion for extravagantly beplumed hats that had devastated bird populations worldwide.

      In honor of what the National Audubon Society has declared the “Year of the Bird,” the New-York Historical Society’s recent exhibition “Feathers: Fashion and the Fight for Wildlife” blended fashion, activism and conservation science to honor the early environmentalists who helped turn the tide of public opinion against so-called “murderous millinery.” At a time when “ethical” and “sustainable” are once again trendy style buzzwords, the show served as both a cautionary tale and a call to action.

THE BIRD ON NELLIE’S HAT SHEET MUSIC, 1906. New-York Historical Society Library, Bella C. Landauer Collection.

      In the second half of the nineteenth century, hats were essential year-round accessories for respectable women. But they were more social conventions and decorative accoutrements than practical sources of warmth or protection from the elements. “A hat is nothing but a pretext for a feather, an excuse for a spray of flowers, the support for an aigrette, the fastening for a plume of Russian cock’s feathers,” wrote French art critic Charles Blanc in his 1875 treatise Art in Ornament and Dress (L’art dans la parure et dans le vêtement). Hats increasingly incorporated not just feathers but bird’s wings, heads and even entire bodies.

Far from being seen as barbaric or macabre, these avian accessories were initially admired for their natural beauty, artful craftsmanship and scientific interest. At a time of rapid urbanization, they brought city dwellers closer to nature; there was a corresponding fad for terrariums and aquariums. In February 1900, Vogue described a chic Parisienne wearing a “little toque . . . adorned with a few upright wings of some sort of South American bird, the sleek feathers of which gleamed like jewels.” The dead birds might be mounted on wires to create the illusion of movement. Sometimes they were framed in a bucolic mise-en-scène of leaves, twigs, dead mice, and reptiles. Advances in taxidermy in the 1880s and ‘90s affected hats as well as hunting trophies.

Hats served as posthumous perches for everything from petite songbirds like starlings, parakeets and hummingbirds to large and flamboyant birds of paradise, peacocks and even owls, reanimated with glass eyes. Milliners might amp up their exoticism by assembling Frankenfowl hybrids from the head of one bird and the wings or tail feathers of another. Plumes were dyed colors unknown in nature, or formed into trompe l’oeil flowers.

RED-LEGGED HONEYCREEPER EARRINGS of preserved hummingbird heads, gold, metal, unidentified maker, probably London, England, circa 1865. Animal parts and insects decorated late nineteenth-century jewelry. In 1865, London jeweler Harry Emanuel patented a method to inset hummingbird heads, skins and feathers into gold and silver mounts. As objects of beauty as well as scientific fascination, the dazzling birds’ heads and feathers were prized as earrings, necklaces, brooches, and fans. 

      “Colibri”—the French word for “hummingbird”—was slang for a frivolous person, making the diminutive creatures especially fitting fashion emblems. In 1889, the Parisian milliner Madame Josse created a toque trimmed with cut jet and “a dragonfly made of the breast-feathers of humming-birds,” according to the Millinery Trade Review. The English called hummingbirds “flying gems,” referencing their value as well as their beauty. The birds’ iridescent feathers, heads, skins, and even entire bodies were incorporated into hats, fans and pieces of jewelry; in 1865, London jeweler Harry Emanuel patented a method of setting them in gold and silver mounts. An example in the exhibit showed a pair of hummingbird-head earrings circa 1865 with the beaks tipped with gold.

Indeed, feathers adorned every part of a fashionable woman’s body. The enormous Roseate Spoonbill was a favorite of fan-makers; it was nearly extinct by 1920, though it rebounded after the Audubon Society dispatched protection wardens to its colonies. A bustled ice-blue satin evening gown of 1885 featured a swansdown-trimmed collar and train. Swans were an attribute of Venus, the Roman goddess of love, making their feathers an appropriate feminine ornament. Like the gown’s velvet underskirt and lace cuffs, swansdown was both expensive and sensual. It also played a part in beauty rituals, formed into powder puffs. Just as birds use their extravagant plumage to attract potential mates, so do people. 

SILK SATIN EVENING DRESS with feathers and swansdown accents by R.H. White & Co (1853-1957), Boston, Massachusetts, 1885. Metropolitan Museum of Art, Brooklyn Museum Costume Collection at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2009.

TUNDRA SWAN WATERCOLOR (Cygnus columbianus) by John James Audubon. Purchased for the New-York Historical Society by public subscription from Mrs. John J. Audubon, 1863. Tundra Swans once nested over most of North America, but disappeared rapidly as civilization advanced westward. By the 1930s, fewer than one hundred remained south of Canada. With protection from hunting and the disturbance of plumers, northwestern populations have rebounded. Today, their population is stable enough to sustain a limited hunting season in some areas.

SILK SATIN EVENING DRESS with feathers and swansdown accents by R.H. White & Co (1853-1957), Boston, Massachusetts, 1885. Metropolitan Museum of Art, Brooklyn Museum Costume Collection at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2009. TUNDRA SWAN WATERCOLOR (Cygnus columbianus) by John James Audubon. Purchased for the New-York Historical Society by public subscription from Mrs. John J. Audubon, 1863. Tundra Swans once nested over most of North America, but disappeared rapidly as civilization advanced westward. By the 1930s, fewer than one hundred remained south of Canada. With protection from hunting and the disturbance of plumers, northwestern populations have rebounded. Today, their population is stable enough to sustain a limited hunting season in some areas.

      A delicate gold and diamond tiara—worn by a bride on her wedding day in 1894—sported trembling egret feathers instead of an aigrette, the feather-like spray of jewels named for the white bird who wears a lacy cape of plumage during nesting season. Egret feathers were scornfully dubbed the “white badge of cruelty” by wildlife advocates. They were worth a princely twenty dollars per ounce in 1915, according to The Tropic Magazine; as a result, egrets were hunted nearly to extinction. In 1902, about a ton and a half of egret plumes were sold in London, representing around 200,000 adult birds (and the destruction of two to three times that number of eggs).

 

GREAT EGRET WATERCOLOR (Ardea alba) by John James Audubon, 1821. Purchased for the New-York Historical Society by public subscription from Mrs. John J. Audubon, 1863. The National Audubon Society adopted a flying Great Egret, one of the chief victims of turn-of-the-century plume hunters, as its symbol in 1953. The sheer splendor of their aigrettes positioned the Great Egret on the edge of extinction by the early twentieth century. With conservation laws, the species has rebounded. AIGRETTE HAIR ORNAMENT (from a Snowy or Great Egret) of egret feathers, gold, gold wire, diamonds, J.H. Johnston & Co, NYC, 1894. Museum of the City of New York, Gift of Mrs. Mary S. Griffin, 1961. Mature Snowy and Great Egrets develop wispy feathers along their breasts, heads and tails during their breeding season. Because of this fleeting growth, these feathers were among the rarest milliners used.

HERRING GULL WATERCOLOR (Larus argentatus) by John James Audubon with George Lehman, 1831. Purchased for the New-York Historical Society by public subscription from Mrs. John J. Audubon, 1863. ACCESSORY SET OF HERRING GULLS, feathers, silk, including muff and tippet, unidentified maker, USA, 1880–99. Metropolitan Museum of Art, Brooklyn Museum Costume Collection, 2009. This unusual muff and tippet, made with four adult Herring Gulls harvested during breeding season, demonstrates how accessory manufacturers exploited these birds.

 
At the height of the “Plume Boom,” the U.S. fashion industry consumed five million wild birds annually, driving many species to the point of near extinction. London, the international hub of the unprocessed feather market, imported nearly 7,000 bird of paradise skins from New Guinea and more than 7,600,000 birds from India and Brazil in the first quarter of 1884 alone.

      Birds and birds’ wings were popular trimmings for the low, brimless hats called toques that trended in the Edwardian era, lending dimension and visual interest to minimalist style. “It’s the toque that dominates,” the weekly magazine La Semaine littéraire declared in 1901. “Birds, alas! entire seagulls rest on these toques, or else a bird’s head forms the middle in front, the two wings spread out to cover the whole hat.” Though seagulls may not seem exotic today, the large Herring Gull species nearly went extinct due to its popularity for hats and other accessories around the turn of the century. A gruesome highlight of the show was a matching muff and tippet set made of carcasses from four adult Herring Gulls; their distinctive red markings indicate that the gulls were killed during breeding season, when their plumage was at its most spectacular.

 

MME. FAUCHÈRE TRADE CARD, circa 1894. Numerous feather traders, importers and manufacturers were located in New York City. Many of the feathers incorporated into clothing and hats were imported from South America, South Africa and Africa. Game and plume hunters from Florida, Texas and Louisiana supplied many of the domestic feathers. 

 

      Women were not the only fans of feathers, however; the nineteenth century was the great age of men in uniform, and the exhibition included a military hat brandishing an exotic scarlet plume. But it was women—often the very elites who helped popularize feathered fashions—who were the first to respond to the trend’s alarming consequences for the environment.

FLORENCE MERRIAM BAILEY (1863–1948). Florence Merriam Bailey began her ornithology career while a college student. She established the Smith College Audubon Society in 1886 after becoming alarmed by the numbers of birds and feathers that adorned fellow students’ hats. Distinguished by her reverence for scientific observation, many of her books, including  Birds Through an Opera Glass  (1889), became important field guides. 

FLORENCE MERRIAM BAILEY (1863–1948). Florence Merriam Bailey began her ornithology career while a college student. She established the Smith College Audubon Society in 1886 after becoming alarmed by the numbers of birds and feathers that adorned fellow students’ hats. Distinguished by her reverence for scientific observation, many of her books, including Birds Through an Opera Glass (1889), became important field guides. 

      At the height of the “Plume Boom,” the U.S. fashion industry consumed five million wild birds annually, driving many species to the point of near extinction. London, the international hub of the unprocessed feather market, imported nearly 7,000 bird of paradise skins from New Guinea and more than 7,600,000 birds from India and Brazil in the first quarter of 1884 alone. South America and Africa (particularly France’s African colonies) provided the lion’s share of exotic birds. By 1911, it was estimated that the Paris fashion industry was responsible for the deaths of 300 million birds per year. This grim toll was exacerbated by the fact that birds were hunted when their feathers were at their most magnificent—that is, during mating and breeding seasons, which magnified the problem of hunting birds by disrupting their reproductive cycles and dooming their orphaned chicks to death.

GEORGE BIRD GRINNELL (1849–1938). Born in Brooklyn, Grinnell played a seminal role in American conservation. In 1886, Grinnell founded the Audubon Society of New York, the forerunner of the National Audubon Society (1905). He launched it from its publication Audubon Magazine as “an association for the protection of wild birds and their eggs.”

      The growing concern over the rampant pillaging of exotic bird populations for their plumage led to the formation of England’s Plumage League (later the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds) in 1889 and, in America, a series of regional Audubon Societies, named for ornithologist John James Audubon. (Fourteen life-sized watercolors of birds—depicted living, flying and in their natural habitats—from his landmark 1838 book The Birds of America were on display.) The National Audubon Society was founded in 1905; in 1953, it adopted an egret as its symbol.

In Gilded Age New York, socialites Harriet Lawrence Hemenway and Minna Hall staged tea parties to try to persuade their rich friends to stop buying hats with real plumage. Lilli Lehmann, a German opera singer and animal lover, campaigned passionately against wearing feathers during a residence with the Metropolitan Opera, offering her fans autographs in exchange for a promise not to wear feathers. Florence Merriam Bailey, an ornithology student at Smith College, established a campus Audubon Society in 1886 after becoming alarmed by the numbers of birds and feathers that adorned her classmates’ hats.

Politicians and many in the fashion and feather trades pushed back against these protests; after all, jobs were at stake. A cottage industry of “willowers”—often Italian immigrants, sometimes children—who specialized in lengthening the short strands of inferior ostrich feathers were among those affected. The Act impacted these laborers as well as feather importers, hat manufacturers and retailers. Surprisingly, some naturalists and ornithologists rallied to the defense of the feather dealers, pointing out that their destructive tendencies had been exaggerated by ignorant if well-meaning activists, and it was not in their financial interests to hunt birds to the point of extinction.

However, the feather trade was not just devastating to bird populations but to the greater environment; gulls, for examples, are instrumental in keeping shorelines clean. It also impacted the fashion workers who toiled in dangerous conditions in tenements to create feathered hats. Eventually, these widespread moral and environmental concerns were codified into law in the form of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. This landmark legislation is credited with saving numerous species from extinction, including the Snowy Egret, Wood Duck and Sandhill Crane. It also paved the way for later legal protections of wildlife, such as the Endangered Species Act of 1973. 

A similar statute, the Importation of Plumage Act, was passed in the United Kingdom in 1922. In France, where a guild of plumassiers—the artisans who dyed, shaped, processed, and sold feathers for use in apparel—had been active since the sixteenth century and retained considerable political power, change was slower to come. But it was undoubtedly hastened by formation of the Ligue pour la Protection des Oiseaux (LPO) in 1912, as well as by World War I, which inaugurated a new era of minimalism in French fashion.

UNKNOWN WOMAN WEARING AN AUDUBONNET. American Museum of Natural History, Special Collections. The Audubon Society also addressed the feather craze by promoting “birdless hats” trimmed with a variety of ribbons, flowers and fabric.

      Feathers from game and poultry destined for the dinner table remained morally neutral, as did ostrich feathers, which could be plucked from the tail without harming the bird. Milliners found creative ways to lend exoticism to non-endangered farm fowl like ducks, geese and chickens, or create artificial exotic “birds” out of commonplace feathers and glue. Ethical “Audubonnets” were decorated with ribbons, artificial flowers and twists of fabric; Audubon chapters commissioned leading milliners to design them.

The tradition continues today. Paris-based Lemairé, which has been supplying feathers to haute couture houses for more than a century, routinely makes feathers from common barnyard birds look like exotic specimens. British milliner Stephen Jones, whose work has crowned the heads of Princess Diana and the new Duchess of Sussex, has long used farm fowl feathers and artificial feathers in his elaborate headpieces, in compliance with Audubon Society guidelines.

As feathered hats and frocks have cycled back into fashion in recent months—seen at royal weddings, on the red carpet and on the runways of design houses like Nina Ricci, Calvin Klein, Balenciaga, Prada, Proenza Schouler, and Alexander McQueen—the morality of wearing feathers is once again being debated, just as many women are reluctant to wear fur or leather. Even down-filled winter coats are increasingly advertised as being “ethically sourced” and “cruelty free.” In February of this year, the Trump administration reversed a key provision of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, saying it poses a burden for utilities and energy companies; wildlife advocates argue that this move effectively guts the law. Maybe the Audubonnet will make a comeback?

“Feathers: Fashion and the Fight for Wildlife” showed April 6 – July 15, 2018, at the
New-York Historical Society, 170 Central Park West, New York, New York 10024.
Visit their website at www.nyhistory.org.

      Get Inspired!

 
 

Campbell-Headshot.jpg

Kimberly Chrisman-Campbell is an art historian specializing in fashion and textiles. She has worked as a curator, consultant and educator for museums and universities around the world. Chrisman-Campbell is the author of Fashion Victims: Dress at the Court of Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette, published by Yale University Press. Chrisman-Campbell was recently honored by the Costume Society of America, receiving the Betty Kirk Excellence in Research Award. For this issue, she explains the history behind the “Feathers: Fashion and the Fight for Wildlife” exhibition at the New-York Historical Society, tracing a fascinating line between exploitation and activism.

Royal Hawaiian Featherwork Volume 38.5

Royal Hawaiian Featherwork. Na Hulu Ali'i

 

LEI HULU feather lei of yellow ‘o‘o (Moho sp.) feathers, red Kuhl’s lorikeet (Vini Kuhlii) feathers, and black ribbon, 36.5 x 3.8 centimeters). Bernice Pauahi Bishop Museum, Ethnology Collection.

 
 

In every possible way, humans have made dramatic and creative use of the natural environment in its evolution as a species. Over the millennia with a rapacious enthusiasm we learned how to defoliate the land of its trees and dredge from the water its creatures. Everything we have touched has been a tour de force of reductive skill, from the food we eat to how we adorn our body. Being initially frugal, we found a way to not only kill and eat other natural organisms but to use their skins to clothe ourselves. After we developed methods to trap and kill birds, in due course their feathers became a prime source of colorful adornment from ritual use to power dressing. Even into the twentieth century, the world-over avidly snatched parrots, toucans, jays, kingfishers, all possible bird life, from the skies and their perches, plucked their feathers and refashioned them to feather our own bodies. For a few historical illustrations—think of China for the brilliant blue of the kingfisher turned into hair pins and headdresses—or of Brazil for the variegated Channel-billed Toucan for royal cloaks and plumes for the head.

‘AHU ‘ULA cape of red ‘i‘iwi (Vestiaria coccinea) feathers, yellow and blank ‘o‘o (Moho sp.) feathers, and olona (Touchardia latifolia) fiber, 70 x 107 centimeters, early nineteenth century. Bernice Pauahi Bishop Museum, Ethnology Collection. 

KAHILI STAFF of red Kuhl’s lorikeet (Vini Kuhlii) feathers, Hawaiian domestic fowl or moa (Gallus gallus) feathers, green, sea turtle (Chelonia mydas) shell, and walrus (Odobenus rosmarus) ivory, 129.5 x 15.2 centimeters, nineteenth century. Bernice Pauahi Bishop Museum, Ethnology Collection.

      An astonishing reminder of the complicated attraction of the feather for personal adornment is “Royal Hawaiian Featherwork: Na Hulu Ali’i,” the first major exhibition of Hawaiian featherwork in the continental United States. The exhibition time line stretches from the arrival of European explorers, unification of the islands in 1810, the Kamehameha dynasty, the conversion to Christianity after the arrival of missionaries, the overthrow of the Hawaiian government in 1893, its annexation by the United States in 1898, and to sovereignty protests by Hawaiians. Co-organized by the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco and the Bernice Pauahi Bishop Museum in Honolulu (and rarely seen outside of Hawai’i), the exhibition at the de Young Museum concomitantly showed visually breathtaking and thought-provoking examples of human ingenuity through seventy-five long cloaks and short capes, helmets, feathered lei, and royal staffs.

The Hawaiians primarily made use of six bird genera: Moho spp. and Drepanis pacifica for their yellow and black feathers, Vestiaria coccinea for scarlet feathers, Psittirostra psittacea and Hemignathus spp. for dark green and olive green feathers, and Himatione sanguinea for red feathers. Of these birds the species are either extinct, uncommon, declining or endangered. Only the Hemignathus spp. is still common.

Cloaks and short capes (‘ahu ‘ula), feathered lei (lei hulu), helmets (mahiole), and royal staffs (kahili) symbolized the divinity and power of Hawaiian royalty and the elite who supported their dynasties. These garments and accessories served as important visual markers for identifying themselves, and their social status, setting them apart from the rest of their people and, for a frequently warring group, as a form of ritual protection. Beautifully and painstakingly wrought, these valuable objects were also used as a form of diplomatic outreach to secure political alliances and agreements.

QUEEN KAPI’OLANI. Photographer unknown. Achenbach Foundation for Graphic Arts. Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco Collection. 

Now fewer than three hundred royal featherwork (hulu ali’i) are known to exist, almost as vanquished as the fowl from whence they came. The de Young Museum installation centered on pieces made for Hawaiian royalty dating from the late eighteenth century and ending in the early twentieth century. Some of ‘ahu ‘ula were collected by explorers like Captain James Cook and were on loan from the Museum of Ethnology in Vienna or the British Museum in London. Called Hawai’i’s crown jewels and as astonishing as these are, the mind still tries to grasp what stunningly beautiful examples the centuries must have brought forth—crafted by master artisans to amplify the royal personages symbiotic birdlike movements as they pranced and flew across the battle ground or engaged in religious ceremonies.

 

The capes could have great personal value like an ‘ahu ‘ula that Kamehameha IV bestowed as an expression of sympathy in 1861 to Lady Franklin, the widow of a British Royal Navy Officer and explorer who disappeared as he sailed from England to seek the Northwest Passage. From the nineteenth century and having a very different history, another ‘ahu ‘ula was worn by Chief Kekuaokalani, a nephew of Kamehameha I who fought against the rule of Kamehameha II and the abolishment of the kapu system that governed social and religious customs. In 1819, he was killed in the Battle of Kuamo’o on the island of Hawai’i, along with his wife, Chiefess Manono, who fought beside him. The cloak was taken as a battle prize for Kamehameha II.

One fortuitous discovery by Queen Kapi’olani, during her stay in England in 1887 to celebrate Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee, was of a cape that had been given by King Kamehameha V to E. Faulkner, paymaster of the HMS Havannah in 1857. She purchased it to return to the Hawaiian nation, naming it Kekaulike Nui for the great chiefs and chiefesses in Hawaiian history.

 

 

MAHIOLE feathered helmet of yellow mamo (Drepanis pacifica) feathers, red ‘i‘iwi (Vestiaria coccinea) feathers, black and yellow ‘o‘o (Moho nobilis) feathers ‘ie‘ie (Freycinetia arborea) aerial roots, and olona fiber, 36 x 16 x 36.5 centimeters, circa late eighteenth to early nineteenth century. Bernice Pauahi Bishop Museum, Ethnology Collection.


      A type of head adornment, the colorful lei hulu were the only articles of featherwork worn by high-ranking women. Yet within its simple circumference, there was a great variety of feathers and patterns that could be utilized and translated into lovely, ethereal halos. The art of making feather lei hulu continues and today communicates love or friendship. After European contact, and another form of feather innovation, Western-style hats became fashionable with lei now designed to lie flat against the hat as decorative hatbands.

Feathered crested helmets held great importance for the warrior statesman. Shown here, this example is the only mahiole in the Bishop Museum that can be traced to a known chief. Kamehameha I gave a mahiole made of red ‘i’iwi feathers with a high crest of yellow mamo feathers and an ‘ahu ‘ula of ‘i’iwi and ‘o‘o feathers to Kaumuali’i, chief of Kauai’i, as a symbol of their agreement to unify the Hawaiian Islands under Kamehameha. Before arriving at the Bishop Museum, they were owned by Reverend Samuel and Mrs. Mercy Whitney of Kauai’i, who were among Hawai’i’s first missionaries.

Anonymously handcrafted from life itself, these Hawaiian cloaks, capes, leis, and staff made in servitude to royalty remain far after their human departures, testament to the astonishing ability of humans to create objects of beauty.

 

   GET INSPIRED!

 
 

Carolyn L. E. Benesh is Coeditor of Ornament and the magazine’s resident expert on contemporary wearable art. As an Ornament traveler, part of her yearly itinerary takes her to the Smithsonian Craft Show in Washington, D.C., as well as the Philadelphia Museum of Art Craft Show in Pennsylvania. Both are destinations that provide treasured encounters each time she visits them. In early March she visited the Heard Museum Guild Indian Fair & Market, which showcases some of the best contemporary Native American art. In addition, she visits museums, galleries and conferences throughout the United States. Benesh reviews the spectacular “Royal Hawaiian Featherwork” exhibition at the de Young Museum.

Nicki Marx Volume 38.2

Nicki Marx: Feathered Fantasies

#38/14 of rooster and Golden pheasant feathers, glued individually feather by feather on backing of deer suede, 2014. Also being worn is a vintage Ring-necked pheasant cummerbund. VINTAGE NECKPIECE of Ring-necked pheasant feathers, circa 1975. NECKPIECE of Ring-necked pheasant feathers, circa 1975. Photographs by Phillip Dixon, courtesy of The Nartonis Project. Model: Fanny Inanga Vega.

A compelling story has a defined beginning, middle, and end, and a protagonist whose dimensionality and intrigue hooks the reader into the narrative. Cape, Shaman’s Robe turned out to be the hook that drew me into the story of Nicki Marx, artist of singular wearables and wall sculptures crafted with feathers and other natural materials. Constructed of feathers, horsehair and leather, it was exhibited in California Design 1976, at the Pacific Design Center, Los Angeles, and subsequently featured in the Chronicle book California Design: The Legacy of West Coast Craft and Style (2005). The dramatic, fluttering cloak was cited in the Fiber Revolution chapter of the book as emblematic of the time when artists dared to make body coverings that were highly expressive, larger than life-size, sometimes outlandish, and constructed more as costume than clothing.

BRUJA DE PLATA, a collaboration by Nicki Marx and Ben Compton of vicuna, rooster feathers, metallic fabric, sheared sheep skin, woven fiber strap with metal hardware, leather, 1976. Photograph by Robert Mertens.

BRUJA DE PLATA, a collaboration by Nicki Marx and Ben Compton of vicuna, rooster feathers, metallic fabric, sheared sheep skin, woven fiber strap with metal hardware, leather, 1976. Photograph by Robert Mertens.

      Indeed, the striking, earth-trailing robe made a forceful statement about this explosive period in the fiber/wearable art movement (page 48). But this was just the tip of the quill—the beginning of what would reveal itself as a richly woven narrative. Marx’s career as an artist took flight when she discovered she could use feathers, shells, seeds, bones, bark, bugs, driftwood, flowers, minerals, and earth as her primary ingredients to make a signature statement in wearable and mixed media artwork.

Living in the coastal town of Santa Cruz, California, in the freewheeling 1970s, Marx, who consistently worked on both wearables and wall sculptures, became identified with a close-knit community of artists who were following their own visions in artwear. Wholly self-taught, Marx popularized natural feather-patterning: the process of creating decorative compositions through arrangement of colors and designs inherent in the natural feathers she would glue to a substructure, most often leather. The brilliance of the hues, iridescences and patterns of the feathers are distinctive to their species, and Marx favored peacock, pheasant, rooster, and duck.

During this time, and in this place, Marx was part of a vibrant artistic circle. Artists Marian Clayden, K. Lee Manuel, Gaza Bowen, and Eliot Marshall Smith were also part of the creative community in Santa Cruz. Clayden actively advanced new techniques in textiles, such as silk resist and clamp dyeing; Manuel introduced methods for painting on leather and feathers; Bowen charted new territory in boot and shoe construction infused with content; and Marshall Smith made strides in mask fabrication with alternative materials.

Marx and other artwear artists were recognized for creating vanguard works by inclusion in important exhibitions and documentation in publications. “Maximum Coverage, Wearables by Contemporary American Artists,” an exhibition at the John Michael Kohler Arts Center in 1980, followed by the eponymous publication in 1981, highlighted the works of these Santa Cruz artists, among others, who were influential in the art-to-wear movement. Marx’s wearable featured in the exhibition and catalog was a collaborative piece (page 48) with artwear designer Ben Compton: A spectacular, shimmering, vicuna leather/rooster-feathered, full-length cape with headpiece, Bruja De Plata (Sorcerer of Silver), appropriately titled the hundreds of rooster feathers—covering the entire surface of the leather cloak—were silvery and reflective as if the feathers had been dipped in liquid silver. More accessible than a museum exhibition, the wearables produced by artwear artists could be viewed, sampled and purchased at Julie Schafler’s Julie: Artisans Gallery, a prestigious Madison Avenue emporium in New York City. Marx’s capes, vests, collars, and cloaks were shown at, and purchased from this gallery in the 1970s and early 1980s, and consequently have landed in significant collections of artwear.

#37/14 of Lady Amherst pheasant feathers, 2014. #33/14 of striped rooster feathers, 2014. #48/14 of rooster and Lady Amherst pheasant feathers, 2014.
Photographs by Faria Raji, courtesy of The Nartonis Project, 2015.

      The wearables of Marx and Manuel were often exhibited in the same shows and appeared in the same publications, and it has been noted that there is an aesthetic kinship between Marx’s feather breastplates and Manuel’s feather collars. The two women were friends and lived in the same community, and according to Marx, they may have started making feather collars at the same time and incorporating feathers into other artwear. However, there is one notable, and distinguishing difference: Manuel had studied fine arts in college and considered herself a painter; her impulse was to paint the feathers and have them serve as painted elements of the composition. Marx, an ardent environmentalist who reveres earth and believes nature is sacred, sees beauty in the feather’s pristine
state. Marx’s objective is to make dazzling arrangements, naturally, without alteration; feathers become “her tubes of paint—her palette.”

At any rate, it is a moot point to consider which of the two artists arrived first at the idea of making feathered adornments. According to costume and textile curator Dale Carolyn Gluckman, both were building on a longstanding tradition: “Marx’s and Manuel’s use of feathers on clothing and neckpieces has antecedents in geographically diverse ancient cultures. For example, among the Nazca people in precolumbian Latin America between A.D. 600-800, ceremonial capes, aprons and standards were covered with the intensely colored feathers of parrots, macaw and other tropical birds, many obviously traded long distances.”

Further, documented research by Dr. Zvezdana Dode, an authority on the textiles and dress of the Mongols of Central Asia, reveals that robes decorated with feathers were mentioned in the writings of Marco Polo and have been found in Mongol noble burials dating from the second half of the thirteenth century to the end of the fourteenth. Thus proving that the threads of cultures connect through centuries. Suffice to say, Marx and Manuel can lay claim to reviving an ancient tradition, making it relevant to their time, and imprinting it with their personal stamp.

CAPE, SHAMAN’S ROBE of feathers, horsehair and leather, worn by Nicki Marx, and exhibited in “California Design ‘76,” 1975. Photographer unknown.

CAPE, SHAMAN’S ROBE of feathers, horsehair and leather, worn by Nicki Marx, and exhibited in “California Design ‘76,” 1975. Photographer unknown.

      Self-identified as The Feather Lady (announced on her feather-trimmed business card), Marx continued a rich and flourishing production of art-to-wear and performance pieces, and wall compositions (some with feathers, some with encaustic, all with natural materials) from the 1970s through the early 1980s, showing in major galleries nationwide, and building an impressive publication and exhibition record. Along the way, Marx fulfilled several high-profile commissions, most notably Eye Dazzler, a monumental mural comprised of Golden and Lady Amherst pheasant feathers created for Stanford University’s Sherman-Fairchild Science Center in 1976, still on display today.

Other remarkable credits to Marx’s name, that shot her into the stratosphere of rock-star-artwear fame, were purchases by celebrated artists Louise Nevelson and Georgia O’Keeffe. This visibility brought production managers from the fashion industry to Marx’s studio doorstep; she was approached with the idea of having her designs produced by other artisans. “It’s a totally intuitive process,” explains Marx. “It’s like breathing. Breathe in—select and place the feather; exhale—glue. It’s so natural for me. Having other people laboring in my studio would change the meditative quality of the work.” Hence, Marx continued along the path of handcrafting each piece, affixing each feather individually, tallying hours of artistic labor.

By 1985, Marx was at a crossroads: primed for a change in both location and creative direction, Marx relocated to Taos, New Mexico, and decided to discontinue making wearables. The remoteness and wildness of the New Mexico landscape had been drawing her to the region; she had lived there part-time for the last fifteen years, and felt “connected to the peace and violence of the natural surroundings” she found outside her door. Evolving out of her wearable work, Marx brought the same skills and intuition to the wall sculptures, which she worked on exclusively through the mid-1990s. Two important series emerged that were politically themed reactions to the horrors and devastation of war: the Gulf War series and the Aftermath series, the latter based on a vision of the world after nuclear destruction. Marx’s artistic diligence was rewarded with a twenty-five-year retrospective in 1996 at Sun Cities Museum of Art, Arizona, where all phases of her career were represented, demonstrating the totality of her creative output.

In any story, this would be considered a happy ending; but the narrative has only reached the end of the second act. Marx’s life took a sharp left turn when a car crash sent her into disability and forced her into a challenging time of survival. Unable to produce work of scale due to injuries caused to her arms and neck, Marx turned to making jewelry from precious metal clay and minerals. The necklaces and pendants that she made from her Taos home and sold locally sustained her during this period of time—more than a decade—that she spent recovering from the injury and regaining her mobility.

#55/14 of Golden pheasant feathers, 2014. Photograph by Faria Raji, courtesy of The Nartonis Project, 2015.

#55/14 of Golden pheasant feathers, 2014. Photograph by Faria Raji, courtesy of The Nartonis Project, 2015.

Her art career having faded from view, but not ready for it to “fade to black” (as when the screen goes dark; the end), Marx was yearning for a comeback. Then, in 2014, opportunity came calling, literally: a phone call exchange ended with an offer to re-enter the art scene, via a Los Angeles gallery that specializes in craft and design. Katie Nartonis, twentieth-century design specialist, had been on the other end of the phone. The outcome was a solo exhibition of wearables and feather-based wall sculptures, “Marx: Rising,” co-curated by Nartonis and Gerard O’Brien. Presented were vintage feathered artwear along with recently crafted versions of collars, breastplates and vests, and feather wall compositions hung on three contiguous walls.

Shown at The Landing at Reform Gallery, in Los Angeles, the 2014 opening produced a powerfully intoxicating effect, as viewers were surrounded by the sumptuous body adornments and wall ornaments, and further, were tantalized by models wearing the collars and breastplates created from the brilliantly hued feathers of many species of birds. These neckpieces, some with vertical extensions of suede and braided leather, fell gracefully at the chests, shoulders and backs of the models as they strutted through the aisles, mimicking the proud birds whose feathers they fluttered with every pivot. By all accounts, Marx had a rousing re-discovery.

During the run of the exhibition, there was excitement over, and purchases of, the wearables and wall sculptures. A vintage 1970s breastplate of peacock feathers was acquired for the permanent collection of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art for inclusion in a major exhibition in 2016, demonstrating that Marx’s body adornments were signifiers of their time. Additionally, famed fashion photographer Phillip Dixon was inspired by Marx’s feathered fantasies. Dixon’s visionary approach resulted in photographs of a nude model wearing only a collar or breastplate. These photographs present the opportunity to see Marx’s body adornments with great clarity and raw energy as they function as true body coverings, skimming over skin without the mediation of clothing.

Her art career once again soaring, Nicki Marx is taking advantage of the momentum. She is back at work in her Taos studio, creating new bodies of artwork. Recently ten of her wall sculptures went on view at the Gallery at the El Monte Sagrado Resort, Taos. But Marx, who just turned seventy-one, knows the power of pause and contemplation. Marx reflects on her re-launch and renewed popularity. “I’m very grateful that I’ve been able to pick up the thread and continue the tapestry of my life. I’ve hung on to my inspiration; I’ve stayed the course. My work was part of the zeitgeist of the ‘60s and now it’s timely again. I feel very fortunate that I’ve been able to manifest my vision all these years.”

 

 Read the Article in Print

 
 

Jo Lauria is an independent art/design curator and author living in Los Angeles. She first came across the wearable art of Nicki Marx during research for California Design, The Legacy of West Coast Craft and Style, which she coauthored with Suzanne Baizerman. Lauria was intrigued by the exotic leather and feather Cape, Shaman’s Robe that Marx had created in 1975 and exhibited in California Design ‘76, but had no idea that she would actually meet the artist who created this extravagant cloak. That opportunity presented itself in late 2014 at an exhibit of Marx’s feather neckpieces, wearables and wall sculptures. “It was a great pleasure to meet her and presented the platform for me to interview Nicki for this article and learn of her renewed energy and commitment to her singular vision.”