THE DROP OF A FEATHER
November 21, 2008
Sarah Stein's "Plumes" -- in part the chronicle of a craze in early 20th-century millinery -- is not just a book about feathers; it speaks to our current moment of financial cataclysm. If there have been recent reminders that markets can go quickly from booms to busts, it may be comforting to learn that it has always been thus, says the Wall Street Journal.
The great ostrich feather craze -- for adornment of women's hats, gowns, capes, gloves and shoes -- lasted from roughly 1905 to 1914. When ostrich feathers flounced into vogue among the fashionable set in Paris, London and New York, traders assumed that the popularity of plumes would stay permanently aloft, as if floating on an endless zephyr, says Stein:
- In South Africa, where the Barbary ostrich (prized for its extra-fluffy plumage) was domesticated and raised on ranches, in London, where the feathers were brokered and on New York's Lower East Side, where the feathers were applied to garments.
- At the height of the boom, the price per pound of plumes almost equaled that of diamonds.
- While the feather trade flourished, fortunes were made.
But when world war broke out in 1914, fashion took on a new pose of austerity, and feathers were the first frivolity to go:
- Ostrich plumes were suddenly considered unpatriotic, silly and vulgar.
- They were relegated to feather dusters or to the costumes of carnival kewpie dolls and fortunes were lost.
- On South African ostrich farms, thousands of the birds died when ranchers could no longer afford to feed them, and with the collapse.
Stein's exploration of the history of plumes confirms that, in a free market, peaks are invariably followed by valleys, notes the Journal.
Source: Stephen Birmingham, "The Drop of a Feather," Wall Street Journal, November 19, 2008; based upon: Sarah Stein, "Plumes," Yale University Press, 2008.
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