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Used for decoration from earliest times, also a symbol of rank. The tail feathers from rare and brilliantly coloured birds, such as the peacock, quetzal and bird of paradise, have been reserved for the ornamentation of head-dresses and coif- fures of the ruling classes in society. In some cultures feathers have also been used to make garments and bedeovers, either because of the warmth of the natural product in a cold climate or, again, as a badge of rank.

The eider duck has long been used in the former category; its breast down, which is exposed when the feathers are plucked, is one of the warmest and softest of all natural materials. The tremendous number of birds which were destroyed to make the eiderdown quilts of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries made prohibition necessary in many countries to ensure the bird's survival. The elder also supplied feathers for making hats in northern latitudes (its natural habitat); these were made from the whole skin of the bird in countries such as Greenland and Iceland.

Throughout Polynesia the cloak was a garment of ceremonial and of importance. In Hawaii, for example, and in Maori society (see Maori dress), the feather cape or cloak denoted high status. Such cloaks had a flax net foundation to which small feathers were attached all over in different colours to form a geometrical pattern. Red was the colour denoting a chief's cloak, or one of yellow with a red design. The best of these were made from parrot feathers, less important ones from pigeon, quail or parakeet. The one illustrated is a typical chief's cloak, forming a segment of a circle and made in red and yellow feathers tied to a net base. Now in the Royal Scottish Museum in Edinburgh, it belonged to the first king of Hawaii to visit Britain in 1824.

Feathers were, perhaps, most widely used for garments, decoration and status symbols by the Indians who inhabited North and South America before the coming of the white man. Exotic head-dresses with long plumes, especially those of the brilliantly-coloured quetzal bird, denoted rank in the South American Indian civilizations (see Aztec, Inca and Maya dress). In North America feathers were used extensively, the type and means of decoration varying according to tribe and district (see North American Indians). Beautiful robes, denoting high status, were made of the iridescent feathers of the wild turkey, the plumes completely covering the foundation as in the Polynesian examples. A common head- dress for many Indian races was the head-band ornamented by a few or many beautiful plumes, most importantly of the eagle or turkey. The bonnet, with its plumes affixed round the edge from top to halfway down the back, was originally worn to war by western American and Canadian Indians, but in the nineteenth century it became a festive head-dress for many tribes (see Bonnet). Each feather represented a particular act of courage performed. The quill was plucked from the golden eagle by the chief and the bird had to be captured, then later released after the feather had been plucked. it was not to be harmed as the Indians regarded it as the monarch of the bird world. Feathers were also inserted directly on the complex coiffures and top knots adopted by a number of Indian tribes.

Most of the ancient civilizations used feathers as decoration, especially for head-dresses. The peacock tail-feather with its brilliant eye was a favourite, its use generally reserved for persons of royal or priestly status or the right to wear it was awarded as a mark of high merit. The E@gyptians wore many different plumes on their head-dresses, as did the Minoans, the Assyrians and Persians. The Chinese also used plumes attached to the crown of the hat by a jade tube as a mark of rank. Under the Manchus a peacock feather was the chief plume, graded so that one with three eyes was of highest merit, descending to a plume of one eye; a pheasant feather was of lesser status.

In Europe feathers were used to decorate hats, head-dresses and coiffure styles; those of the rarer, imported birds being reserved for the nobility. Men's hats in the later Middle Ages were decorated by tall feathers of all kinds, but especially the tail feathers of the peacock, pheasant and cockerel. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries ostrich tips and plumes were worn in men's hats, curling on or around the crown and brim. Often these were blended with other feathers to provide variations in colour and form. By the later eighteenth century the large hats of the ladies were similarly ornaniented, while in the early nineteenth century, very tall plumes adorned the coiffure for evening functions. Feathers of all kinds were worn in ladies' hats and bonnets throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. This was especially so in the decades of large designs such as the 1830s, 1890s and early 1900s. Particularly fashionable were ostrich feathers from the wings and tail, marabou feathers from the African stork, pheasant and bird of paradise tail-feathers, and aigrettes from the egret, the white heron. Feathers were also widely used in ladies' dress during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries for dress trimmings, boas and fans; the ostrich and marabou plumes were most usual for this purpose. In the early twentieth century, plumage laws were passed in order to restrict the indiscriminate slaughter of birds for decorative purposes and belated efforts were made to preserve some species which were in danger of extinction. Since 1920 feathers have been used in ornamentation in a much more limited way.

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2006 March 28