Thursday, May 10, 2012

The Plumassier

from Larousse Encyclopedia 1907
Feathers, from time immemorial, have been a part of humankind's culture. For centuries, birds have given up their plumage in the name of ritual, ceremony, and symbol.

But, particularly in the last three centuries, feathers have been a statement of fashion. In the 1700's, a thriving trade, or profession, grew up--that of plumassier--one who prepared , traded and merchandised feathers.

Plumassiers of the 19th century may not have prepared their own feathers. Preparation was a lengthy process involving degreasing by washing, dyeing and tinting, trimming, crimping and styling. It was a recognized trade, involving extensive training. The plumassiers whose names have come down to us were retailers, W. T. Botobol of the Regency era, and Madame Carbery mentioned in period documents of 1825. I have been able to discover no other information about these two dealers in feathers, so we cannot know their involvement in the preparation of their products.

In any event, the retailers of feathers had to be au courant with every aspect of the fashion industry. Fashions in feathers were as variable as fashions in jewels, fabrics and colours. In 1800 the following feathers were noted as the most in favour: bird of paradise, argus pheasant, Indian macau, and cocque. The argilla, the esprit plume, and the Seringapatam plume are mentioned as well. Whether on ladies' hats and aigrettes,  in plumes for the military, in marabout trims, or swansdown muffs, feathers were ubiquitous and plumassiers a well-known part of the commercial scene.
An 18th century plumassier's shop
About 1810 the Irish poet Thomas Moore wrote "Anacreontic to a Plummasier" in which he describes with great sarcasm the preparation of plumes for that trio of feathers that symbolized the Prince of Wales. The first stanza does not reflect the vitriol of the following verses:
Fine and feathery artisan,
Best of Plumists (if you can
With your art so far presume)
Make for me a Prince's Plume--
Feathers soft and feathers rare,
Such as suits a Prince to wear.
You can read the entire poem here.

The ostrich feathers, flat and porcupine, required by the Prince of Wales' feathers were the most popular by far of the myriad feathers in use. They were obtained from South Africa, and the near and middle East, where they were hunted to extinction. The gathering of feathers for fashion was a disastrous occurence for bird populations around the world. In the U.S.A. the Carolina parakeet was hunted to extinction, and the egret nearly so. The end of the nineteenth saw the height of the destruction, and it also brought the first regulations and restrictions on the industry. Nevertheless, the scarlet ibis is currently endangered by the trade. If you find the dark side of the industry interesting this blog is full of facts and statistics--Fashioning Feathers.

18th century French illustration
The New York Times in 1998 designated Andre Lemarie the 'last of the plumassier breed'. His Lemarie House in Paris, founded in 1880 and famed for its outstanding products, was bought by Chanel in 1996. Nevertheless, the occupation of plumassier still exists, taught in French vocational colleges, and elsewhere. Feathers still adorn ladies' hats and the new 'fascinators'. Plumes, boas, wings and tufts of feathers still charm us, and awe us with their beauty.

The plumassier's was one shop every Regency lady loved to visit, and most of us would eagerly join her there.

'Til next time,


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