The weird turn of the century craze for wearing stuffed animals as headwear.
As we know from events like Royal Ascot, the hat is often as much a statement and attention-grabber as anything else and there are no limits beyond what a person might be able to physically hold on the top of their head – and sometimes, not even that will be a stopping point. In the millinery world, there is the curious parallel universe of what we might consider the novelty hat – extravagant ‘look at me’ creations that are more costume than fashion. We’re not knocking it – wildly eccentric outfits, even if worn by very dull but egocentric people, are more fun than the bland workaday awfulness that dominates the high street. We’re all in favour of individualism.
In the Victorian era and into the 1920s, there was a curious and decidedly weird trend for taxidermy hats. No one seems quite sure when or how this started, but one horrifying early example was that of Miss Kate Fearing Strong, who attended the 1883 Vanderbilt Ball in New York wearing a hat that featured, as a centrepiece, a taxidermied kitten. As if that wasn’t enough, she also had seven cat’s tails sewn onto her dress. We might wonder just where these came from but perhaps that’s not a thought that is good to dwell on. If someone were to venture out in this today, they would probably need to be taken into protective custody, and would frankly deserve all the abuse they got – but this was a different time and everyone thought that her hat was a jolly jape, it seems.
Taxidermy was a bit of a Victorian craze and so we shouldn’t be surprised that a variety of dead animals would appear on hats. Given that even today, there are still weird people who will wear fox and mink stoles with the dead animal’s face attached, perhaps these hats from over a century ago shouldn’t be so unexpected – but you know, animal rights issues aside, no one is going to convince me that wearing a stuffed chicken on the top of your hat isn’t weird and creepy.
The animals most used for hats were, of course, birds. Feathers have long been a popular embellishment for a hat and at the start of the 20th century, the craze for feathered hats was out of control. To supply the number of feathers needed, a lot of wild birds needed to be killed. An aigrette tiara took the feathers of four egrets to make – and those feathers weren’t being cast-offs collected from the ground. It’s been claimed that in the early 1900s, five million birds a year were being killed in Florida alone. Such wholesale slaughter for the sake of fashion began to push species towards the point of extinction and led to a huge pushback against the women who wore these hats – in a precursor to the anti-fur movement of later decades, the aigrette was dubbed ‘the white badge of cruelty’ and public outrage and political lobbying finally led to the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918, offering some protection of birds and their eggs.
There is, of course, a great deal of difference between the massacre of endangered species for plumage and taxidermied animals. Taxidermy remains as popular as ever (and is something we’ll be coming back to at some point because God knows, there are some weird examples out there), and some defiant milliners have continued the trend of putting dead animals on hats as a way of catching the eye. It’s a look, I guess – but perhaps one that will remain decidedly and deservedly niche, if only because while walking into an event wearing a dead squirrel on your head will absolutely make you the centre of attention, it probably won’t be in a way that you’ll enjoy.
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