Each month, we’ll be revealing the history of a different fashion accessory in the museum’s collections, to complement our new exhibition Completing the Look: 300 Years of Fashion Accessories. This month we look at the Edwardian fashion for highly decorative hats.
When we think of fashionable Edwardian women, most of us picture an elaborate, wide-brimmed hat. In the Edwardian period, hats were a fundamental part of an outfit and they were used to exaggerate a wearer’s shape. The hourglass shape popular in the Victorian period had fallen out of fashion and it was replaced by an “S-shape” silhouette, where the hips were thrust backwards and the chest forwards. To exaggerate this shape further, wide hats were positioned to stick out over the face. By 1911, hat brims were wider than the shoulders and there are stories of 18 inch hat pins being needed to secure these creations to the hair!
Edwardian hats were not only large, but they were also extremely decorative. Ribbons, tulle, and fake flowers were popular ways of embellishing hats, but the most favoured decoration was feathers. The market for feathers was vast: in London, one merchant alone recorded more than 1 million heron and egret skins being traded between 1897 and 1911. In 1911, 41,000 hummingbird skins were sold in London. Bird species were under significant threat of extinction because of this fashion for feathers.
It was under these circumstances that the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) was established. The Plumage League had been set up in 1889 to try to ban the trading and use of feathers and 15 years later, in 1904, through a Royal Charter granted by Edward VII, it became the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds. However, a Royal Charter did little to slow the trend for feathered hats, and it was only in 1922 that the import of rare and endangered birds and feathers was banned. By this time, fashions had changed and feathers were no longer held in such esteem.
You can see Edwardian fashion accessories on display in our current exhibition, Completing the Look: 300 Years of Fashion Accessories, open until 30 July 2017.