Copyright @Jane Austen’s World
Looking at the images in this post, one can only imagine how difficult it was for a woman in full evening dress (or court dress) to move around. Between taking care of her shawl, reticule, dance card, and fan, she had to walk upright and sedately so that her head feathers did not topple over after an abrupt movement or caught fire under chandeliers ablaze with candles.
Examining the above image, one can readily see that these costumes were designed for high-ceilinged rooms that were opened by high double doors.
In this dramatic image, Thomas Rowlandson catches a moment of real danger both for the lady whose wig (and feathers) caught fire, and for the guests, who might have been trapped in a house fire, for water to put out flames was not easily obtained. In the late 18th century The London Times reported on several more incidents in which ladies found ways to accommodate their head feathers, or in which the feathers (and mother nature) got the best of them.
At all elegant Assemblies there is a room set apart for the lady visitants to put their feathers on, as it is impossible to wear them in any carriage with a top to it. The lustres are also removed upon this account, and the doors are carried up to the height of the ceiling. A well-dressed Lady who nods with dexterity can give a friend a little tap upon the shoulder across the room without incommoding the dancers. The Ladies feathers are now generally carried in the sword case at the back of the carriage. – Times, Dec 29, 1795.
A young lady only ten feet high was overset in one of the late gales of wind in Portland Place, and the upper mast of her feather blown upon Hampstead Hill. “The maroon fever has been succeeded by a very odd kind of light-headedness, which the physicians call ptereo mania, or feather folly.” The Ladies now wear feathers exactly of their own length, so that a woman of fashion is twice as long upon her feet as in her bed. – Times, Dec 30, 1795.
We saw a feather in Drury Lane Theatre yesterday evening that cost ten guinea. We should have thought the whole goose not worth the money. – Times, Jan 6, 1796.
Here is a contrivance by which A Modern Belle going to the Rooms or Balls can go fully dressed with her feathers fixed. There is to be seen in Gt Queen Street a Coach upon a new construction. The Ladies set in this well and see between the spokes of the wheels. With this contrivance the fair proprietor is able to go quite dressed to her visits, her feathers being only a yard and a half high. – Times, Jan 22, 1796.
The Times described predicaments regarding head feathers that were not new. Note how twenty years before, both high wigs AND feathers were accommodated. And, indeed, feathers, whether made from ostrich, emu, goose, or peacock, remained popular as a head dress for years to come.
The headdress, while always including a veil, also required feathers as part of it, although, the number and size of the feathers varied with the Monarchy. At the time of Queen Charlotte, young ladies wore one single towering ostrich feather, but through the years, the number of feathers required increased. By the Edwardian Era, the widespread use of feathers to decorate hats and bonnets began the passage of laws that restricted using certain types of bird’s feathers.*
Queen Victoria hated small feathers, so orders were issued that Her Majesty wanted to see the feathers as the young lady approached. Later in Queen Victoria’s reign, as well as in the court of Edward VII, the mandated headdress was three feathers arranged in a Prince of Wales plume–that is, the center feather was higher than the two on each side of it–and it was worn slightly on the left side of the head. Tiaras were worn by married women, and it was extremely difficult to keep the feathers in place, especially during the curtsy.
More on the topic:
- *Presentation at Court, Dawn Aiello
- Old Times: a picture of social life at the end of the eighteenth century, John Ashton, 1885
- Edwardian Promenade
- Ostrich Feather Craze