A fine, feathery, fashionable notion

This enormous hat, circa 1910-12, features a dove holding a green twig – a reference to Noah’s Ark and the end of the flood, says fashion historian Ivan Sayers. - Gerhard Von Rosen photo
This enormous hat, circa 1910-12, features a dove holding a green twig – a reference to Noah’s Ark and the end of the flood, says fashion historian Ivan Sayers.
— image credit: Gerhard Von Rosen photo

Amongst Ivan Sayers’ vast historic clothing collection is an unusual, detailed piece of lace from the 1750s.

It depicts a man and his servant dressed entirely in feathers from head-to-toe.

“It’s my favourite piece of lace,” Sayers says, admitting that may seem like an odd thing to say.

Sayers is a fashion historian, and he will be bringing the lace, along with other feather-inspired garments, to the Surrey Museum for an upcoming lecture, Fine Feathers Make Fine Birds.

The talk will not only focus on how feathers were used in fashion – primarily between 1890 and 1960 – but also on the exploitation of the birds from which the feathers were taken.

“They are beautiful,” Sayers says. “But the feathers look best where they were grown, on the backs of the birds.”

He says that hundreds upon hundreds of birds would be killed in a single season prior to World War I. In the period around 1909 to 1913 it was fashionable for hats to be enormous, and to achieve the size without the heft designers often turned to lightweight feathers.

For a short-lived time in the 1880s it was also fashionable to fasten whole taxidermied birds to hats and dresses. And while Sayers doesn’t have them in his collection, he has seen earrings featuring entire hummingbirds.

“I’m not one for animal parts [in fashion],” he notes. “If you need a fur coat, find one that’s 50 years old and recycle it.”

Sayers will have some feathery hats, clothing and fabrics on hand at his upcoming talk, including a few pieces of jewellery made from bird claws, which tie into the museum’s current Birds of Prey exhibit (on display now until Sept. 7).

As a fashion historian, Sayers has produced numerous fashion shows, lectures, and exhibitions in North America. He has always been fascinated by history and says his interest in fashion was piqued in childhood, inspired by his parents involvement in amateur theatre (both performed, and his mother made costumes).

At age 14, Sayers had set up his own museum in the garage, featuring everything from stamps, rocks and ceramics to old machines, blacksmith tools and arrowheads.

He was the Vancouver Museum’s Curator of History from 1976 to 1990.

“I’ve always been interested in history. I’d say that my interest is history, and textiles are my medium to explain history,” he says.

Today, Sayers also teachers Continuing Studies classes on fashion history at Simon Fraser University.

He recently taught a series on the history of women wearing trousers, and has one coming up on the history of men’s fashionable clothing.

His Surrey Museum talk on feathers and fashion came about to complement a friend’s photography exhibition at the University of B.C.’s Beaty Biodiversity Museum on the role of colour and adornment in attraction and courtship in the bird world.

The Surrey lecture – “I prefer to think of it as painless education,” Sayers says – will take place Aug. 24, from 2 to 3:30 p.m., for ages 16 and up. Cost is $10.

Call the museum at 604-592-6956 or visit any Surrey recreation centre to register in person.

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