They may seem horrible to us, but feather fans with a cute dead hummingbird were a Victorian fashion for more than twenty years. Stuffed and wired into shape, the bird was posed stylishly, sometimes along with feather flowers or even insects. The fans weren’t the folding type, but the kind that was sometimes called a feather screen: a chic “bat” with a slim handle.
The hummingbirds were imported from South America, along with other exotic feathers for fans, millinery, jewellery, and ornaments. They were often used on fans in vibrant or pastel shades that suited evening gowns. Feathers were sewn onto a lightweight net backing with a hidden frame or wire stiffening. Handles were wood, bone, or ivory.
Hats could carry bigger birds, some of them dark or grey. Blackbirds were used on 1870s headgear, and all sorts of plumes, wings and other pieces of bird were worn from then into the next century. Sometimes there were hidden springs as well as wire to help them “move” elegantly.
Of course there were people who didn’t care for this.
“Did you think I liked the cruel things, with their dead birds and their hideous colors?”
said the new bride on receiving a fan from her well-meaning husband, in an 1872 novel. (Their Wedding Journey, by William Dean Howells) At Niagara he had misunderstood her feelings about
“shop-windows with their monotonous variety of feather fans – each with a violently red or yellow bird painfully sacrificed in its centre”
The year before that book was published, Princess Alexandra carried a fluffy white “marabou” fan with red hummingbird at a London ball. French Princess Eugénie wore a green and gold hummingbird on a dinner dress in 1867. Jewellers at this time used hummingbirds, in whole or part, for expensive “novelty” necklaces and hair ornaments worn by grand ladies.
Plenty of people protested at birds being killed (and also at cruel methods of plucking feathers from live creatures) but the fashion for wearing stuffed birds spread through the 1870s and 1880s. By about 1900, hummingbirds were no longer in demand for American or European fashions. A few of the fans were preserved and can be seen in museums.
More about hummingbird fashion in the ‘Cult of Novelty’ chapter in Jewellery in the Age of Queen Victoria: A Mirror to the World by Charlotte Gere and Judy Rudoe
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