by Ann Covode
Eve Alfillé’s new “Feathers” series will open on Saturday, May 4th with festivities to highlight these lighthearted designs…
Eve explains that her inspiration for her new series came from her scientist father at a very young age. “When I was a child, about six years old, my scientist father wanted me to develop logical thinking. He often came up with riddles. This one stayed with me: “What is heavier, he asked, a pound of iron, or a pound of feathers?”
Immediately my imagination conjured a tall tower, and Rapunzel tossing both out her window. I knew the answer: “Iron, of course!” I blurted.,” states Eve. A moment of silence. My father wagging his head. “No. They each weigh the same, a pound.” I knew I disappointed him, but inside, I felt rebellion. Could I also be right? There was something about the image of all these feathers lightly, delicately swirling to the ground that delighted me.”
Light, flexible, strong, and colorful, feathers are impressive structures. Although feathers come in an amazing array of types, they are all made up of the same basic parts that have evolved small modifications to serve different functions. Downy feathers have a loosely arranged structure that helps trap air close to the bird’s warm body. The structure of other feathers features a small alteration that makes a big difference; microscopic hooks that interlock to form a wind and waterproof barrier that allows birds to fly and stay dry.
“Feathers I have not really known until now. Google tells me many useful things: they adapt to need, flexible and strong in bird tails and wings , with tiny Velcro- like hooks to keep the fibers connected even in high winds. And to keep warm in winter, contour and down feathers have evolved loose strands to trap body heat. Water rolls off a duck’s back, because its feathers have waterproofing, and anyway, feathers are constantly renewed as a bird molts”, ponders Eve.
“I love feathers for many reasons : elegant form, hard and soft at once, balanced in their asymmetry, variegation, and because they show that you don’t need a hard carapace to be protected.,”reveals Eve.
Many cultures have used feathers in their ceremonial costumes and artwork. The most astonishing work came from Mesoamerica, where the Aztecs used feathers like mosaic pieces, to create intricate tableaux of gods and martyrs. Caravans of pochtecas, or feather traders, moved through the rain forest as far south as Colombia, exacting feathered tribute from weaker tribes. Hummingbirds, parakeets, macaws, motmots, spoonbills, cotingas, and other species were killed or captured by the thousand, sometimes altering their natural ranges. Some were skinned on-site, but most were trapped or anesthetized with poison arrows and brought to the imperial aviaries in Tenochtitlán. There they were hand-raised on worms and grain and plucked for use in Montezuma’s workshops.
In Peru, the biologist Thor Hanson writes in his 2011 book, “Feathers,” the Inca rubbed their parrots with poison-arrow frog secretions so that their colors would change with the next molt. In Hawaii, more than eighty thousand mamo honeycreepers were used to create King Kamehameha I’s golden cloak. The bird is now extinct.
After the conquest, Cortés sent crates of Aztec featherwork to the king of Spain, along with codexes tallying the birds and the down collected. The most beautiful pieces made their way across Europe, enthralling Albrecht Dürer and the Holy Roman Emperor, among others. In France, a taste for feathered hats took hold under Louis XIV and quickly grew into a craze. Ostrich feathers were shipped in from Algeria, Tunisia, Egypt, and Madagascar, and dyed black, green, lilac, rose, sky blue, and yellow; heron feathers were brought from Germany and Turkey to adorn the Knights of the Holy Spirit.
“I love how birds can molt into “nuptial plumage”! What is it? Well, you might say it is akin to getting some new threads and primping up before a bout of speed dating. For a change, the males are the ones who have to do all the work! Girls can stay as they are, dressed to blend in with habitat.”, she adds
Feathers have been a focus of fashion for hundreds of years. “The madness for feathers has reached a point of excess one never could have suspected,” the journalist Louis-François Métra wrote in the winter of 1775.
“Hats that would have seemed ridiculously tall a few months ago no longer suffice.” Prompted by Marie Antoinette, who doubled the height of her feathered hat for a ball thrown by the Duchess of Chartres, women were soon wearing hats as high as two and three feet. Arguments broke out at the opera, where viewers could no longer see the stage, and the finest ladies were forced to kneel in their carriages to clear the ceiling, or else stick their heads out the window. “When a woman thus coiffed dances at a ball, she is compelled to continually bend down as she passes beneath the chandeliers,” the Count of Vaublanc noted in his diary. “It is the most graceless thing imaginable.” Paris had twenty-five master plumassiers at the end of the seventeen-hundreds. A century later, it had hundreds, making fabrics for Hermès, the Folies-Bergère, and the Moulin Rouge. In London, the feather market went through nearly a third of a million egrets in 1910 alone. In New York, Hanson writes, a bird-watcher named Frank Chapman counted more than forty species of feathers on women’s hats on a single walk, and those were only from native birds. Some ladies had taken to wearing whole birds on their heads by then—an economical choice, given that feathers were more costly, by weight, than anything but diamonds. Among the treasures that went down with the Titanic were more than forty cases of feathers, worth upward of 2.3 million in today’s dollars.
Stay tuned for more inspiration and a sneak peak at Eve’s new collection…