It’s said that when you find a feather it’s an angel trying to communicate with you. Dreaming about feathers signifies a life of comfort and warmth. And no matter religious and political beliefs, most people would agree that there’s something magical about feathers. Their often impressive colors, their function and what they signify are all appealing factors. So appealing that designers have used them for centuries. This Thursday, Antwerp-based Mode Museum pays a tribute to those designers with a new exhibition named Birds of Paradise.
We’ve met up with MoMu curator Karen Van Godtsenhoven to discuss fashion designers’ relationship with what is meant to be the most complex structure of the integumentary system—feathers.
Lars Byrresen Petersen: No matter what fashion week you attend, there’s always one collection that features feathers. When did feathers become part of fashion?
Karen Van Godtsenhoven: They date back even a few centuries: in the 16th century Elisabeth I wore feather fans and accessories, and also the Victorians in the 19th century showed off their exotic feather accessories as signs of wealth and opulence. Feathers were a status symbol at the English and French courts, and throughout the 20Th and 21st centuries they remain a status symbol of elegance and wealth. Especially the 1920s (boas), 1960s (feather coats) and 1980s-90s (power dressing) saw a lot of feather revivals and new uses and interpretations of feathers in fashion.
LBP: Where do you think fashion’s affection for feathers come from?
KVG: Because of the great variety in birds, very different feathers exist that can serve different expressions and purposes in fashion: their versatility makes them popular, as well as their reaction to air (mobility), movement and elegance. The rarity and beauty of exotic birds is also something that gets transposed to women wearing feathers: with our title Birds of Paradise we don’t just mean the bird but also the women wearing feather dresses. The image of the woman as a bird (femme oiseau) goes back to romanticism: the bird was seen as a beautiful, innocent and free creature, so that idea also lives on in fashion. Nowadays, of course, feathers also have an erotic symbolism and can be used to create a ‘femme fatale’.
LBP: Both feathers and fashion signal something that’s always in motion, is that the connection?
KVG: This is a nice way of putting it. There is certainly something to say about mobility, elegance, lightness, fragility and rarity that connect feathers with fashion.
LBP: What designers would you describe as masters of feathers?
KVG: Different designers did different things with them. There are a lot of feather masters who showed their characteristics through their use of feathers: Coco Chanel used very graphic heron feathers, so called aigrettes, as a sign of modernism. Dior used dyed feathers on accessories as a sign of elegance and femininity. And Cristobal Balenciaga made bold voluminous and abstract feathered shapes that were very avant-gardistic and opulent. To Yves Saint Laurent feathers signified liberty, and today many designers like Alexander McQueen/ Sarah Burton, but also Raf Simons at Dior and Ann Demeulemeester use a lot of feathers in their work, in varied techniques and shapes.
LBP: Briefly describe the exhibition and how it’s been built…
KVG: Because feathers attract a lot of dust and are very fragile, we chose to make a kind of glass case that look very airy and protect the feathers, so you can also come very close to the pieces. The buildup looks a bit like greenhouses or bird cages in glass that are put in the museum. Very bright and quiet, we didn’t use very strong colors but soft palettes because the clothes are eye-catching enough by themselves.
LBP: What’s your favorite item in the exhibition?
KVG: Tough call. The YSL and McQueen silhouettes are so dramatic and powerful. Ann Demeulemeester’s pigeon and rooster feathers are very beautiful in their simplicity and poetry. These silhouettes all really have an emotional impact on me. If I have to choose, the silhouette with the pigeon feather bustier from Ann Demeulemeester s first show of 1992. Kirsten Owen wore it on the catwalk and it became immediately a very iconic feathered Ann Demeulemeester look.