It's official: feathers are trending for Spring 2018. On the runway at Proenza Schouler, for example, tufts of white plumage cascaded down the front of a grey frothy, feathered dress, like frosting atop an ethereal cake. Elsewhere, at Rodarte, multi-colored feathered jackets were the Mulleavy sisters' take on a fur coat, with the nearly weightless plumes floating elegantly as the models walked.
In a world where fur is becoming increasingly déclassé because of repeated campaigns by animal rights activists — with luxury houses like Gucci, Armani, Michael Kors and Versace recently pledging to ban fur altogether — is the use of feathers any more ethical? According to Ashley Byrne, associate director of campaigns at PETA, the answer is an emphatic no. "It's unnecessary and it's cruel, and it's not ethical," she asserts.
However, she acknowledges that there isn't a mass movement toward banning feathers because wearing them isn't as visually visceral as fur. It is easy to imagine that a fur piece "looked like their cat, or it looked like their dog," Byrne says. "[But] I think we're used to seeing feathers detached from the birds they came from."
The history of feather usage (especially when it comes to their use in fashion) was once the cause célèbre of animal rights activists and was considered worse than using fur. Since the court of Louis XIV, feathers have been a staple of peacocking fashion fiends, but the obsession with them — as is the case with everything in fashion — has waxed and waned over the centuries.
After the French Revolution, excess was shunned and simple, neoclassical-style looks reigned supreme. But as the nineteenth century progressed, the French monarchy was restored; the elite began to crave more excess, and that was reflected in their dress. In the years that followed, this craze for excess filtered down to the masses through the increased circulation of ladies' journals. Women wore feather-trimmed hats throughout the 1800s. Hat sizes grew in the 1820s, and as the width of brims increased, so did the demand for plumage. By 1875, English women would sometimes wear an entire menagerie worth of birds — stuffed, and fully intact, from beak to talon.
Satirists attacked the usage of birds in fashion and 20th-century writers like Cecil Willett Connington viewed this obsession as a form of sadism and suggested that the impulse to wear feathered fashion was sexual in nature. But by then, the demand for plumage evaporated, nearly overnight, with the onset of World War I in 1914. Imports from France (a hub for processing feathers) to Great Britain of ornamental feathers went from a record 2.2 million pounds in 1913, to less than 200,000 by 1920.
Although the abrupt change was attributed to World War I, there was a growing movement concerned over the excessive plumage use. The Victorian era also brought on a growing interest in the natural world: By the 1880s, there were several hundred natural history societies and specimen collecting became popular. But as people collected en masse, they realized that they were destroying the very habitats they wanted to study. Concerns for conservation and animal welfare became highly public issues, and the excessive use of feathers for fashion quickly came under fire.
The first effort towards ethical treatment of birds came from England in 1867 with the East Riding Association for the Protection of Sea Birds, which protested the annual sea bird hunting event off Flamborough Head. This was followed by four Acts of British Parliament from 1869 to 1880 to preserve birds found locally in Britain, but it did not stop imports of exotic birds. In America, the Lacey Act, which prohibits trade in wildlife that has been illegally sold, was passed in 1900. The Migratory Bird Act, which more specifically dealt with the feather trade and prohibits the killing and selling of migratory birds, was passed in 1918. But at that point, feather usage was already on its way out. (Under President Trump, the law was amended in December to allow businesses that kill migratory birds accidentally as a result of conducting business to be exempt from prosecution.)
Today, according to animal rights organizations, the ethics surrounding feather use is cut-and-dry. "Feathers in fashion are just like the use of fur or the use of leather in fashion," says Byrne. "It results in cruelty to animals. Any time you have animals being used for fashion, the priority will always be the bottom line, not the [animal's] wellbeing."
Feathers, as opposed to other fashion materials derived from animal products like leather and fur, don't necessarily require slaughter in order to obtain the material. Most birds molt — a process of shedding their feathers to make way for new ones — which provides a unique loophole for ethically-minded individuals. One farmer who accommodates this ethics-minded approach is Rene Creasy, owner of Cruelty Free Feathers, a Virginia-based farm that strictly sells molted bird feathers. She has approximately 25 birds, who produce around 2 pounds of feathers per year. To understand how many feathers that yields, one ounce equals 700-800 feathers, with 16 ounces in a pound.
It's not the most efficient system, but according to Creasy, it could work on a mass scale if there were more farms willing to adopt her method. "There's just not enough of us cruelty-free feather farmers out here to supply the entire industry." This fact is mostly due to demand. Creasy's business generally attracts a niche customer — "mainly your hippie, tree-hugger types," she says. Her fashion clients reflect that: They are small, independent designers, like Phat Feathers and Color by Amber, both of which are jewelry companies.
But for animal rights groups like PETA, even this painstaking method of collecting molted feathers is inherently inhumane. "So often, if you look at the layers of what is happening on a farm that is trying to present itself as humane, you find things that aren't in the best interest of the animals." Creasy understands this kind of total opposition. Even if a person manages to obtain the feathers completely ethically, "It kind of perpetuates something that we really should get rid of, says Creasy. "But if they're molted, they're just going to turn into compost. You might as well do something beautiful with it."
Picking up molted feathers isn't a solution for ostrich feathers — the most commonly used feather in fashion. Unlike other birds, ostriches — prized by the fashion industry because of their lush, luxurious feathers and versatility in that they can be dyed any color — don't molt. Ostrich feathers are acquired in one of two ways: Plucking while the bird is alive, or taken from the bird post-mortem, after the bird has been slaughtered for its skin (to create exotic bags and shoes) and meat (ostrich is a popular delicacy in Africa).
In 2015, PETA investigators went inside two of the largest ostrich farms in the world. "What we found, I mean, it was horrendous," says Byrne. "Our investigators witnessed workers forcing ostriches into stun boxes and then slitting their throats, and the birds would stand in line, and watch as their flock mates were killed just a few feet away from them. Workers were caught on camera striking ostriches in the face during transport and at slaughter, and joking around as they watched."
Saag Jonker, owner of one of the oldest and largest ostrich farms in South Africa, denies these allegations. "I think it's pure ignorance," says Jonker. "Sensation gets more coverage than the real thing. But really, we're comfortable with what we do ... We cut [ostrich feathers] like you cut your nails. When they reach a certain stage of being ripe then it's like a fruit when it ripens then after a certain time and then it falls off the trees."
"You can compare the feathers with wool, and sheep shorn for wool," his wife, Hazel, who works with Jonker, explains. "It's the same sort of principle: The feathers are harvested, the birds grow new feathers again." Hazel is a member of the Greens, the eco-friendly political party of South Africa, and that has a direct effect on how they conduct their business. Jonker keeps them in mind, saying, "we stay between the lines."
"Our industry is very well-regulated," Jonker adds. This includes abiding by legislation such as the Animal Protection Act (which passed in 1962) and bodies such as the South African Department of Agriculture, the National Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and the South African Business Chamber, where Jonker served on the board for many years. Currently his son, Heinrich, is a director on the board.
Farming ostriches was also once considered the most ethical form of harvesting feathers by animal rights groups. In 1888, The Selbourne Magazine For Lovers and Students of Living Nature, which was published by the animal rights group Selbourne, published an article stating that ostrich feathers, "are taken without suffering to the bird, and form an important article of trade. These, with....feathers of all birds killed for useful purposes, may satisfy the natural desire to make our dress as pretty and artistic as possible."
The ostrich farming industry, paradoxically, saved ostriches from being hunted to extinction. Their feathers were so popular that ostriches were becoming an endangered species, but by breeding them domestically, the feathers were able to be produced in a controlled manner. Even these efforts don't do enough for animal rights organizations. "There's no humane or ethical way to kill someone who doesn't want to die, to kill someone for fashion," explains Byrne. "There's just no excuse for wearing bits and pieces of an animal when we have so many better options at our disposal."
Then again, the ethics of feather usage argument may be moot. Technological advancements that allow scientists to bioengineer a steak without ever having to kill a cow may exist in our near future. "We have this new technology that is able to replicate everything from hamburgers to leather to silk without the use of animals," says Byrne. "You get to bypass the farm and the slaughterhouse entirely. I think that that's where we're headed, and that's going to be good news for everyone."