When I was young, I was quite taken with the feathered hats then in style, and I looked forward to wearing them when I grew up, but by the time one would have been appropriate, they were no longer in vogue. By then, coiffures had become an art form all their own, and light veils or pillbox hats that complemented arduously teased bouffant hairdos were the rage.
Now that HATS & HEADDRESSES has arrived at the Museum, and I have a world-encompassing millinery display to enjoy, I’m seeing some pretty good feathers again, the most extravagant of which come from the Amazon and are worn almost exclusively by men for special occasions. (This does not include young men who have to wait until after their coming-of-age ceremonies to sport them.) In some cultures, the head is considered the most important part of the body, the seat of the soul, and headdresses made of feathers are prized as adornment for this sacred area. From Amazonia come haloes of long feathers that encircle the wearer’s face and exquisite caps and crowns. There is also one charming cloche fit for any flapper. Speaking of flappers, the exceptions to the feathers-for-men-only rule are the women of Kayapo culture of Central Brazil who wear feathers for their naming ceremonies.
Important as the brilliant color of the plumage is, there is a more profound reason for using feathers in these traditional headdresses. Birds are held by many cultures to be intermediaries between men and higher powers, and wearing their feathers is a symbol of protection and spiritual strength. Amazonian shamans, for instance, wear feathers as a sign of their connection to these bird spirits. Not everyday accessories, these magnificent yet fragile creations are worn for ceremonies such as initiations and funerals, during social visits, to identify with one’s group or when exercising political power. They also indicate status or prowess, as a hunter, a provider or a leader.
Among the most often used feathers are those of macaws, parrots and toucans, but eagles, roseate spoonbills, and hummingbirds are also seen on these elaborate creations. Although often hunted for both meat and feathers, some birds are raised for their feathers alone. Young birds that are captured to be reared in villages are plucked judiciously and their feathers allowed to grow back before they are plucked again, thus ensuring a continuing supply. Birds kept in this way include curassows, guans and rheas as well as macaws, parrots and toucans.
Some headdresses display a hierarchy of feathers with the plumage of high-soaring birds such as eagles and canopy dwellers such as macaws and parrots supplying the long feathers and the plumes of ground-dwellers like curassows the short ones close to the head. Because these headdresses are primarily ceremonial, they are carefully packed in boxes or baskets by their owners when not in use, often with long feathers removed to facilitate storage.
Feathered headwear is not confined to Amazonia. Three brimmed straw hats from Mexico’s Huichol culture employ feathers as decorative elements. The apparently random placement of the feathers is a playful element. In one case, they appear to have dropped from the sky and arranged themselves willy-nilly on crown and brim. The Baining people of Papua New Guinea decorated the antennae of a monumental tapa and bamboo Fire Dance (Mosquito) Mask with delicate white feathers that look like down. Another headdress from Papua New Guinea is a charming hat with long, thin black feathers rising from its crown that bring to mind Jerry Seinfeld’s neighbor Kramer’s hair.
One more feathered hat comes from a location that may not seem exotic to us, but might seem so to someone from Papua New Guinea or Amazonia. It’s from San Diego, of course, a knock-out concoction by Walter Chapman, one of the artists featured in SAN DIEGO’S CRAFT REVOLUTION.
Although there is nary a feather from Africa in the exhibition, there are birds. Two king’s crowns from Nigeria’s Yoruba culture made of beads as brightly colored as any macaw feather are topped by prudent bead birds that function as conduits from the spirits above to the wise ruler beneath. Not to be outdone, the Long Skirt Mountain Miao of Guizhou in China dress their eligible daughters in silver and embroidery, topping them off with intricate silver crowns adorned with totemic symbols and legendary creatures. The one in the gallery bears a flock of alert, silver phoenixes that appears to have recently landed on the flowered silver crown.
There are many reasons to wear a crown, even if it’s one given figuratively, and so it gives me pleasure to present an imaginary and well-earned crown to someone who is truly deserving. To the talented, kind, charming, witty and patient Linda West who retired last Thursday as mingei.org’s webmistress, I bestow my crown and the title of Web Empress Emerita. I know that, like the phoenix, she’ll enjoy a rewarding new life. Thank you, Linda. It’s been so much fun.