Feathers are epidermal growths that form an outer covering on the bodies and wings of birds. They come in a variety of forms and colours. Feathers have been used for ornamental purposes for centuries. Hand fans made with feathers were most popular in the 1870s, when ostrich and marabou feathers were in high demand. At this time, craftspeople who made fans with feathers were known as “plumassiers.” Additionally, feathers were commonly used to decorate other accessories like hats and scarves.
This pink-purple feather fan features fourteen ivory sticks, decorated with small blue, pink and gold flowers. An elegant gold handle holds the sticks together.
This fan was likely made from dyed ostrich feathers. Ostriches are common in the Western Sahara and in South Africa. Once their feathers were plucked, they would be sent to suppliers to be dyed in a variety of colours. Feather dying was a creative yet finicky process. The desired hue was mixed as a bath into which the feathers were dipped. Once coloured, the feathers were washed and separated to prevent them from sticking. After they dried, the feathers could be used to adorn hand fans.
In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, magazines such as Godey’s Lady’s Book and Peterson’s Magazine wrote about fashion trends from around the world. These publications explained that the more “carelessly” one waved or posed their feather fan, the more stylish it was. At this time, feathers were a very common material for hand fans. These magazines implied that the owner of a feathered fan was likely someone fun and frivolous due to the light-hearted nature of the medium.
In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, magazines such as Godey’s Lady’s Book and Peterson’s Magazine wrote about fashion trends from around the world. These publications explained that the more “carelessly” one waved or posed their feather fan, the more stylish it was.
This fan features fourteen ivory sticks with small holes carved into them (figs. 18–19). The sticks hold soft white marabou feathers. In the eighteenth to the twentieth centuries, white feather fans were often reserved exclusively for brides. The feathers likely came from large African marabou storks. Like ostrich feathers, they would have been expensive as imports and finicky to hand-dye. As feathers can be fussy for an artist to work with, it would take time and skill to attach with precision.
In addition to fans, 1860s Parisian court artists adorned dresses, jewellery, hats and jackets with ostrich and marabou feathers. The material was believed to add luxury and artistry to these items. Eventually, the world followed the French, and demand for these feathers surpassed supply. This caused fan makers to use other materials like paper and fabric for their creations.
An example of a different accessory adorned with feathers is this straw sunhat from the Agnes’s collection. This particular hat features bright blue ostrich feathers. Similar to fans, the hat would have been both an exotic and creative accessory while also being practical due to shielding the face from the sun.