No. 24: Far-Flung Finery: Formal & Frivolous Furs & Feathers
A maritime collection might seem the last place to harbor clothing accessories, but there is something about ships and voyages, launchings, landfalls, and departures, that stands on ceremony, and ceremony seems to expect that we look our best.
As many shipboard portraits reveal, people seemed to indulge in fancy dress aboard, whether in home port or away, particularly if family were along, as they often were. In fact, the farther away the voyage -- Liverpool to Leghorn, Capetown to Kobe -- the more formally sea-going spouses seem to have dressed for the photographers.
Appearances were to be maintained, most particularly at the ends of the earth. Successfully packing and preserving kid gloves, starched bodices, fur collars, and lofty plumes through the duration, vermin, and dampness of a lengthy sea-voyage was arguably a triumph equal to one's husband's navigation.
In this detail of the top image, feathers and fur are close at hand. The complex detailing of the two women's outfits has done little to enhance the picture, though; they are so concerned that the child smiles at the camera that they themselves missed the shot.
This ca. 1880 fur seal coat, belonged to Annie Stubbs Hawley (Bucksport, wife of Capt. James Hawley, master and owner of several schooners. Donated by her granddaughter, we also have Annie's 1883 wedding dress. The coat is cut to flare aft over the bustles that were predominant in this decade.
In this view of an unknown ship's salon, the somber elegance of the paneling, moldings, and velvet drapery is echoed in the high, possibly funereal, fashions of the ladies. Note the coiffed black plumage of their head-ware. We can't be sure, but it is possible that this tightly-gloved and well-pomaded trio is about to proceed to a memorial honoring the 1901 death of Queen Victoria.
Our sampling of plumes is not limited to black. The right-hand feather has been two-toned with purple. All have been reinforced with wire to facilitate their re-use in the ever-changing tides of fashion.
A dazzling crescent of peacock feathers imitates the live bird's display. In a feat of delicate handwork, the "eyes" have been microscopically glued to the quills of the white feathers that form the background for the painting. These, in turn, are mounted to the filigreed, curly-grained sandalwood spines.
Though our records loosely date this Japanese export fan as between 1850 to 1900, similar pieces are probably available today, stowed in airport luggage instead of steamer trunks, mementoes or gifts brought home for the same reasons.
In extraordinary condition, this back view of a ca. 1910 ostrich feather cape reveals the maroon satin lining, and the tassel ties.
In this detail from a circa 1898 Bath High School student body portrait, it is cold enough for some interesting fur-pieces to be appearing, but these young ladies were less likely to own the likes of this matched ermine muff. It was of a more expensive nature than the wool or rabbit-fur variety that they would likely have used for cold sledding parties.
Big girls get real fur; in the mean time, little girls ca. 1900 could settle for this faux-ermine winter outfit, with the oversize plush bonnet. A wire in the bonnet rim keeps it rigged at full sail.
Far flung curiosities returned aboard many a vessel. The color and iridescence of tropical bird plumage was certainly irresistible. These two hat or hair-pieces are imitation flowers but are actually made from feathers. But even the birds themselves became ornaments.
When calling at Rio de Janiero, one sought out the establishment of Mssrs M. & E. Natte, Fleuristes, on the Rua do Ouvidor, with wives and/or sweethearts in mind. As their label (above) attests, the brothers could supply the baubles of the Amazon to adorn "marriages, etc.," like this glittering hummingbird (below), stuffed and wired to perch on hat or lapel.
Females of the flock weren't the only ones to be sporting plumage. This detail is from an image of the St. John's Day Mason's conclave, June 24th, 1881, in Bath, Maine, taken as all took their ease on the Museum's own Donnell house porch. Cigars held carefully to one side, as the breeze billowed in the bunting, 150-plus white egret-plumed cock-bill hats were regally doffed, and the shutter clicked.
The plumed hat from our collection (above) belonged to a Mason from the same Bath Commandery from about 1910. All of his gear, including a second cap, hat rain covers, apron, sash, sword belt, and even a clothes brush, fit into a special leather valise. The whole kit was made by the Ames Sword Co., Chicopee, Mass., which probably did well with the Masonic franchise.
Launchings have always brought out regalia's finest. Behind our "classic" mink throw, complete with eyes, paws, and noses, can be seen similar creatures draped amidst the crowded sponsor's platform at a 1917 or 1918 launch during the wartime boom at Bath's Texas Steamship Co.
The enormous bouquet of roses may serve to screen sponsor (and her mink) from the spray of the hanging christening bottle, which she is on the verge of dashing against the riveted stem plates.
Furs, and feathers for that matter, have a timeless condition that defies dating; only as they are incorporated into a garment of recognizable fashion can their age by determined.
The distinctive length and glossy texture of New World howler monkey fur winds its way through various fashion statements from the early 1920's through its sometimes pink 1960's period, right up to the present day and its faux versions.
Our particular piece is large enough to be considered a large collar, almost a cape, and may have been intended to have a black satin train extending underneath. The underside view (above) shows over a dozen irregular pieces stitched together, but no other evidence that it was ever finished into a garment.
Lest we forget the original feathered mariners:
Gliding for days in the wakes of ships in remote parts of the ocean, the albatross has long been of spiritual significance to sailors. Despite the old taboo against catching them, the off-watch aboard the Alaska-bound three-mast bark Levi Burgess (above) has snared one for amusement.
Our stuffed specimen retains its dignity, if not all its tail-feathers.
The Victorian penchant for exotic mounted specimens culminated in household fixtures like our pair of New Guinea Lesser-Birds-of-Paradise. The two foot high, 12" diameter hand-blown glass vitrines are almost as spectacular. (I removed one for this image, very slowly!)
The 1880-1915 demand for plumage in fashion decimated bird populations from every climate and geographical region. The feathers of the breast, neck, and wings of this pair were likely worth more sold separately than kept as intact specimens.
A feather quill pen was still enfolded within the pages of the hand-bound log of the schooner Salmon, George W. Mansfield, master. Covered in hand-stitched sailcloth, the entries record his uneventful and hence, successful, voyage from Boston to Tampico, Mexico and back in 1827.
Just as Mansfield's hand patiently worked his words across each page borne by the sway of the vessel, so also did his hand carefully sharpen this quill into the pen point that was dipped in the ink again and again, until his concluding "so this day goes out."
Finally, a descent from plumed pulchritude to feathered fixture:
If glamour goes with a feather duster, then the one on the right is almost preen-able, with multi-hued plumes and enameled decorative handle. For when company called?
The work-a-day model on the left is strictly business, the turkey feathers worn with use; its leather binding is stamped "The Chicago Janitor."
Let me know if you stopped by down here!
Chris Hall, Registrar