Fashion to Die For: How Feather Accessories Promote Animal Suffering

Fashion repeats itself. Today, skinny jeans that made their original splash in the 1960s are sported by the young and hip, replacing yesterday’s flared variety borrowed from the 1970s. But some trends are perhaps better left in history, especially those relying upon non-renewable animal products. Though fur immediately comes to mind, celebrities and models have shifted to a new animal-based fashion accessory: feathers. Using bird feathers in fashion may seem innocent enough, but for the birds involved, this latest statement is anything but fabulous.
Decorative bird feathers—also referred to as plumes—first hit the fashion scene way back in the 1870s and 1880s. One woman’s dress was reportedly adorned with the feather patches of 3,000 Brazilian hummingbirds. Chic ladies topped their hats not only with plumes but with whole stuffed animals, like birds of paradise and woodpeckers.

As the craze continued, bluebirds, owls, herons, warbler, and other bird populations began to drop. In 1896, Harriet Hemenway and Minna Hall, two native Bostonians, urged the wealthy women of their city to put an end to the trend and join the Massachusetts Audubon Society in protest. Around 1,000 women joined the Audubon Society and, as a result of their activism, the state passed a law outlawing the trade in wild bird feathers the following year. In 1918, the rest of the nation followed Massachusetts’ positive example with the creation of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. This law made it illegal to harm, trap, transport, or collect eggs from native birds without a permit.
Though whole birds no longer crown ladies’ hats, the fashion industry still draws upon the antiquated fad. Last week, Jean Paul Gaultier, a French fashion icon, paraded his models in plumage-decked gowns and extravagant feather headpieces. “Like a fox in the proverbial hen-house, Gaultier served up plumage from every bird he could get his hands on,” wrote one reviewer. Luckily, the designer could only pluck from common species like chickens, ostriches, swans, turkeys, and pheasants, but the message Gaultier sends could be worrying in the wider context of species exploitation in the fashion industry. In the past, Gaultier has been targeted by animal rights activists for his use of fur and even whole fox heads.
While Gaultier’s haute couture is inaccessible for most of us, celebrities like Steven Tyler and Ke$ha have bought into more affordable feather fanaticism with plumage hair extensions. At $40 to $500 a pop, the feather extensions are by no means cheap, but that hasn’t stopped young women around the nation from snatching up copycat versions to stick onto their heads (incidentally, many of these feathers are purchased from fly fishing shops where they are sold as bait).
And for the roosters whose tail feathers are harvested, the cost is even steeper. The animals, which are specially bred for their feathers, are confined to small, crowded cages for about 30 weeks before being killed and skinned after their plumage matures. One farm in Colorado reportedly kills around 1,500 roosters per week for hairpieces, and the farm says it still can’t keep up with demand. For birds like ostriches and geese, feathers are often taken in a process called “live plucking” which entails simply ripping fistfuls of feathers from the animals’ bodies, according to People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA).
There’s ways to be trendy without sacrificing chickens. PETA provides instructions for a cruelty free, do-it-yourself ribbon version of the trend. Now, if Ke$ha would just wise up…