History takes flight

An exhibition opening April 6 at the New-York Historical Society Museum & Library in Manhattan will offer a heady combination of fashion, activism and history, along with plenty of feathers.

“Feathers: Fashion and the Fight for Wildlife” is designed to explore feathered fashions and the rise of animal rights activism in honor of the centennial of the landmark Migratory Bird Treaty Act.

Unidentified maker. Accessory set, including muff and tippet, 1880–99, United States, Herring Gulls, feathers, silk; Metropolitan Museum of Art, Brooklyn Museum Costume Collection, 2009.300.2050a-c. Image: Art Resource, NY. Image courtesy New-York Historical Society.

The show will also share the stories of these early environmental activists, many women and many from New York, who championed the protection of endangered birds.

The show, a sweeping study in mixed media, will showcase not only bird- and plumage-embellished clothing and accessories but also feature original watercolors by John James Audubon. These depictions of birds endangered before the passage of the statute, drawn from the Society’s own celebrated collection, served as models for Audubon’s seminal “Birds of America.”

In addition, recordings of bird songs from The Macaulay Library at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and numerous objects on loan from other institutions — books, ephemera and photographs — will help bring this story to life.

THE HISTORY

The Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918, administered by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, was one of the first federal laws to address the environment. It prohibited the hunting, killing, trading and shipping of migratory birds, while also regulating the nation’s commercial plume trade. (At the time, that endeavor had brought many American bird species to the brink of extinction.)

“Feathers” is presented as part of the Year of the Bird, a centennial celebration of the treaty act organized by National Geographic, the National Audubon Society, the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and BirdLife International.

In advance materials, Louise Mirrer, president and CEO of the New-York Historical Society, says, “‘Feathers: Fashion and the Fight for Wildlife’ commemorates the centennial of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act by delving into history and examining the economic and social circumstances that inspired the early environmentalists and activists who lobbied for this consequential legislation. As New York was the center of the nation’s feather trade, the exhibition also investigates how the act impacted the city’s feather importers, hat manufacturers, retailers and fashion consumers — as well as how New York women played an important role in pushing for the legislation.”

John James Audubon (1785–1851). Great Egret (Ardea alba), 1821; watercolor, graphite, pastel, gouache, white lead pigment, black ink, and black chalk with selective glazing on paper, laid on card; purchased for the New-York Historical Society by public subscription from Mrs. John J. Audubon, 1863.18.30. Image courtesy New-York Historical Society.

WALKING THROUGH

The first gallery of the exhibition, “A Fancy for Feathers,” will include late 19th- and early 20th-century fashion, from feathered hats to boas to fans, jewelry and clothing. Among the highlights is a gold and diamond Aigrette hair ornament (1894) featuring the wispy feathers of a Snowy or Great Egret. Advance materials share these, “were scornfully called the ‘white badge of cruelty’ by activists.” Also included will be an 1885 R.H. White & Co. evening dress with swans’ down accents and — not for the faint of heart — circa-1865 Red-Legged Honeycreeper hummingbird earrings (it was in vogue to feature insects and animal parts in late 19th-century jewelry). The gallery will also contain painted miniatures depicting women adorned with bird plumes.

“Activists Take Flight,” the second gallery, will share the stories of some of the activists who fought for legislation to protect the birds. As advance materials also share, “As the center of the nation’s feather and millinery trades, New York played an important role in influencing the Act. New York City activists included George Bird Grinnell, a prominent conservation polymath and protégé of Lucy Bakewell Audubon, who was inspired by her husband to found the first Audubon society in New York in 1886; Mabel Osgood Wright, an influential author and founder of the Birdcraft Museum and Sanctuary in Fairfield, Connecticut; Florence Merriam Bailey, an ornithologist whose bird books became important field guides; and Lilli Lehmann, a German opera singer and animal lover, who campaigned passionately against wearing feathers while in residence with the Metropolitan Opera.”

The exhibition will wrap up with 14 Audubon watercolors. These life-size interpretations of species saved by these conservation efforts are drawn from the Society’s famed collection, one that remains the largest repository of Auduboniana in the world. Among the featured works will be a scene featuring the Roseate Spoonbill, a wading bird whose dramatic pink wings and feathers were used in fans designed for the tourist trade in Florida. Also of note will be the depiction of the Great Egret, one of the birds most affected by the turn-of-the-century plume hunters but also the species that would become the symbol of the Audubon Society.

Roberta J.M. Olson, curator of drawings, and Debra Schmidt Bach, curator of decorative arts, have organized the exhibition. Related programming, which includes a curator-led tour April 16 and activities such as walking tours in Central Park, is also planned.

“Feathers: Fashion and the Fight for Wildlife” will be on view April 6 through July 15 at the New-York Historical Society Museum & Library in Manhattan. For more, visit nyhistory.org.

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