Dressed to Quill: The Origin and Significance of the Feathered Showgirl in World War I Paris explores the social, cultural and economic factors that informed the use of ostrich feathers in Parisian fashion during World War I.
The introduction of the anti-plumage movement in 1913 followed by the outbreak of World War I lead to the collapse of the exotic feather industry almost overnight. Milliners and couturiers turned away from their use in fashion, leaving wholesalers and manufacturers were left with significant stockpiles of ostrich feathers, which had escaped anti-plumage sanctions. By 1916, in the absence of other luxury items, designers began to use these ostrich plumes to symbolised luxury in otherwise straitened times.
This period in history is also where feathered showgirl costumes emerged, popularised by superstar performer Gaby Deslys. In late 1917, in a show called Laissez-les tombe! (Let Them Fall), Deslys attired herself and the chorus in iconic red, white and blue feathered outfits, many of which had been recycled from leftover costumes and fabrics from previous shows. As well as a rejection of Germany’s attempted domination of France, these costumes were a tribute to French sartorial ingenuity and its ability to transcend the War’s limitations on luxury.
The feathered showgirl costumes premiered in Paris in 1917 became icons of modernism and their aesthetic has prevailed for more than 100 years. Beyond the costumes’ historical importance, the re-use and recycling ethos that underpinned their design is a critical example of sustainable fashion that still remains relevant today.
Dr Emily Brayshaw, School of Design
Brayshaw, E (due 2021). ‘Dressed to Quill: The Origin and Significance of the Feathered Showgirl in World War I Paris’ in Bass-Krueger, M; Edwards-Dujardin, H; de la Haye, A; and Kurkdijian, S (eds.) Fashion, Society and the First World War: International Perspectives. Bloomsbury Fashion. London.