Blue Bird of Paradise

The specimen became wildly famous after it perched atop the head of Carrie Bradshaw during the wedding scenes of Sex and the City: The Movie, acting as her something blue.

I was in New York on the hunt for birds-of-paradise. While their natural habitat is over 9000 miles away in the rain forests of Papua New Guinea, I had it on good authority that I could find some particularly intriguing examples at famed Chelsea fashion emporium New York Vintage. NYV is, according to their website, “the ultimate source worldwide for the finest Vintage Couture and Designer Clothing and Accessories”. Their hand-selected permanent archive, which spans over 100 years of fashion history, is the destination of choice for film and TV costume designers in search of that special something. The day I visited the special something I was in pursuit of was an extremely rare Blue Bird-of-paradise. Though rare, the millinery specimen became wildly famous after it perched atop the head of Carrie Bradshaw during the ill-fated wedding scenes of Sex and the City: The Movie, acting as her something blue.

To get a closer look at this curiously blue bird, I had booked an appointment with Carlos Benevides. The NYV conservator specializes in the conservation of millinery apparel and is an expert on the history and arts of the plummassier. Originating in the 1700’s the profession encompasses the cleaning, bleaching, dying, curling and making up of plumes and feathers for fashion and interiors. At the height of the plume boom (1900-1910), when the wings, heads and bodies of hundreds of thousands of birds were prepared for millinery adornment, plumassiers were a ubiquitous part of commercial districts in European and North American fashion capitols. Today plumassiers are considered a dying breed and Benevides is one of the few people living in North America to know, and still practice, the secrets of the craft. Having recently curated an exhibition about the crafts and practices associated with the international plume boom, I arrived at my appointment excited to have an audience with a master of the craft.

NYV’s permanent archive is located above its carnivalesque themed street-level retail showrooms and a red-carpeted staircase leads the way into its rarified confines. The extensive and finely curated collection consists of iconic vintage boutique, designer and couture pieces, alongside its fabled fragile period treasures. On first encounter it is not hard to imagine why the glittering and diaphanous garments that line the rails and glass-cabinets of the archive showroom are a revered resource for designers, stylists and costumiers. Although an initially overwhelming spectacle my attention was soon turned to their millinery displays, which featured a variety of feathered headdresses and headpieces. Benevides pointed out a particularly prized Philip Treacy headpiece, featuring antique wingpads, which had originally been commissioned for Alexander McQueen’s infamous 2008 spring collection.1 He also drew my attention to a feathered mohak headpiece that Benevides himself had been commissioned to make for Lady Gaga that featured antique imitation egret plumes from NYV’s own collection.

While these were exquisite examples of refashioned vintage plumes, I was keen to encounter my quarry – the Blue Bird-of-paradise. As Benevides unpacked the specimen from its storage container he recounted the story of how he had come to acquire this object. Benevides had actually rescued the bird from being thrown on a bonfire after its owner had recently inherited it in an estate and was burning items they felt were problematic or of little importance. He was able to intervene after a mutual acquaintance recognized it as a preserved bird-of-paradise and that it might be of interest to the millinery conservator. It was fitting that Benevides was able to save the bird from the bonfire as he related to me that the reason millinery bird-of-paradise specimens are so rare today, even though tens of thousands of them were killed and preserved annually for the plumage trade at its height, is because milliners and plumassiers were ordered to burn their plumage stocks after the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918. This act, strengthening the earlier Lacey Act of 1900, banned trade in migratory and exotic bird parts and feathers across the U.S. in bid to protect the many bird species that were being decimated as a result of the plumage trade. As it was difficult to identify which birds the feathers and parts belonged to after millinery preservation, entire contents of stockrooms were often confiscated and turned into feather bonfires by officials enforcing the act.

Back in NYV’s archive showroom Benevides carefully unwrapped the Blue Bird-of-paradise from the tissue paper it was shrouded in and related that originally the paper had been heavily dusted with arsenic. Arsenic, like in taxidermy, was often used by plumassiers to preserve bird parts and bodies. Benevides had titled his Masters dissertation on the history of the craft Terrible Beauty, first and foremost because Edwardian feather lust had brought many bird species to the brink of extinction but also because plumassiers were prone to developing tuberculosis and other serious ailments due to their use of hazardous chemicals and treatments to strip, curl, dye and preserve feathers and bird parts. Benevides confirmed that the Blue Bird-of-paradise had been subject to some of these treatments and was not a specimen of Paradisaea rudolphi, a bird-of-paradise species that has natural electric blue wing and flankplumes, rather, it was most likely a Greater Bird-of-paradise (Paradisaea apoda) that had been dyed blue.

At the same time as acquiring the Blue Bird-of-paradise, Benevides had also been gifted two millinery-preserved Greater Bird-of-paradise specimens. When he laid these specimens next to the blue for comparison it became clear it was definitely not an example of Paradisaea rudolphi. On closer inspection I could make out that the dye was fading on the crest feathers to reveal the Paradisaea apoda‘s natural golden yellow hue (the Paradisaea rudolphi by comparison has black crest, throat and nape feathers). While it may seem odd to dye these naturally vibrantly coloured feathers, plumassiers had to remain au courant with the changeable whims of the fashion industry. Fashions in feathers were therefore as variable as fashions in garment styles, textiles and jewelry. The What Women Are Wearing section of the New York Times dated September 25th, 1904 indicates how women were wearing birds-of-paradise plumes to match their outfits:

“Mrs. Clarence Mackay wears hats to match her frocks, the hats being made to go with each costume. The other evening she had on at dinner at Sherry’s a charmingly light but large round hat of pearly grey white tulle shirred on invisible wires and quite transparent as to the wide brim. From the front and left of the hat floated a plume of white bird of paradise feathers. This frail but beautiful creation topped a dress of pale gray covered partially with darker gray paillettes in chenille effect.”

The most common colour to dye bird-of-paradise plumes was actually black, as the women who could afford to wear them were often in mourning for long periods of time. Yet as the feather archives at Maison Lemarié reveal, bird-of-paradise feathers and parts, predominantly Paradisaea apoda or minor as their plumes were the lightest colour and thus easiest to dye, were dyed all the colours of the rainbow to suit changing fashion tastes.

Founded in 1875, Maison Lemarié, Paris, has enjoyed a kind of legendary reputation among milliners and designers for both their exacting standards and long-standing relationship with Chanel. Purchased by Chanel in 1997, it is now one of the last remaining plumassier workshops anywhere in the world. Marine Pacault’s photographic series Lemarié, le dernier plumassier documents how the heritage of the plumassier exists not only in the memories and skills of the artisans working there, but in their unrivalled archive of antique plumes and bird parts, many of which are protected species today. Benevides told me Lemarié had acquired these feathers buying out their rivals as they closed.2 While today Lemarié tends to use the feathers of farmyard birds, their plume archive is an important record of not only the arts and crafts of the plumassier but, more importantly, the brown-paper parcels labeled ‘Paradise”, ‘Ara’, ‘Heron’ mark the range and diversity of bird species that were killed and shipped to supply the trade.

On asking Benevides if the blue bird-of-paradise could have been prepared at Lemarié, he suspected that a Parisian artisan had most likely prepared it, but that it was impossible to tell if it was prepared at Lemarié as there were over 400 plumassiers plying their trade in Paris in 1900.3 One thing that is certain about the bird is that it continues to seduce. When Sarah Jessica Parker, who plays Carrie Bradshaw in Sex and the City, was asked in interview which piece of clothing from the six seasons and two movies of the franchise she would have liked to have kept, she replied:

“It’s the bird. I wasn’t allowed to keep the bird Carrie wore at the wedding that never happened. The blue beautiful bird. I can’t get the bird. They won’t give me the bird. The bird … the bird has eluded me.”

The now iconic bird will continue to frustrate Parker, as it remains in NYV’s permanent archives under the careful custodianship of Benevides available for rent only.

Parker’s desire to have the bird is reminiscent of the voracious feather lust so ridiculed by the cartoonists of Punch magazine at the time of the plume boom. It also raises perplexing questions concerning my own position as modern day plume-hunter. While I am not killing these birds like the Malay, Chinese and Australian hunters who sought fortunes by traveling to New Guinea at the zenith of the trade, I do find myself coveting their remains. And although it is now illegal to hunt or export birds-of-paradise, many of these species continue to be threatened through a black market trade in their plumes. Additionally, their habitat is slowly being destroyed through New Guinea’s contemporary exports in gold, copper, timber and coffee. If the latest reports prove accurate, many bird-of-paradise species, including Paradisaea rudolphi, are, without serious intervention, on a flight to oblivion.

Birds-of-paradise thus continue to be, quite literally, devastatingly seductive. Yet their plumes and powers of seduction were never meant for us. Following Darwin’s theory of sexual selection their beauty evolved entirely for their own pleasure, primarily the females’, regardless of what they mean to human cultures. Over tens of thousands of years, favourable ecological and geographical conditions combined with the objective effects of sexual selection helped to craft the exaggerated and alluring plumage of the birds-of-paradise. With these sentiments in mind, I left my NYV appointment to view the now confirmed mock Blue Bird-of-paradise reflecting on the nature of its blueness. Where in western cultures the something blue bridal tradition is supposedly representative of love, in many Middle-Eastern traditions blue is the colour of mourning, which seems more fitting in this bird’s case. And this may not have been lost on the costume designer for the Sex and the City Movie. The ill-fated Carrie and Big wedding marks the height of the character’s materialistic hedonism. The jilted Carrie, in an excessive cream-puff Vivian Westwood gown and the blue bird-of-paradise headpiece, decries the lengths she has gone to in order to attract her mate in this exchange with the character Miranda:

Carrie: I put a bird on my head!
Miranda: Is that what that was? I thought it was feathers.
Carrie: It was a bird.

The blue bird thus becomes a mocking symbol not only of the death of Carrie and Big’s love (disregarding the inevitable fairytale reunion at the end of the movie) but, more importantly, her ridiculous materialistic excess. Such a scene would have been zealously seized upon for satirical treatment by the cartoonists and writers at Punch had such an event happen at the time of the plume boom. The magazine’s writers and cartoonists were extremely critical of the killing and use of birds for hats and, as much as reminder for myself, I will conclude with the last lines from the poem A Plea for the Birds that appeared in magazine on September 17, 1887:

“Fashion’s whims are oft absurd; Leave his feathers to the bird!”

 

Links and Further Reading

www.fashioningfeathers.com – this blog documents the making of, and the research behind, the exhibition Fashioning Feathers: Dead Birds, Millinery Crafts and the Plumage Trade at the Royal Alberta Museum (March 24, 2012- January 6, 2013) conceived and curated by Merle Patchett.

The exhibition also showcases the work of contemporary artists Kate Foster and Andrea Roe.

Alternative Ornithologies – special issue of Antennae: The Journal of Nature in Visual Culture dedicated to art, plumage and birds guest-edited by Merle Patchett.

To view video footage of Paradisaea rudolphi, the real Blue Bird-of-paradise, watch the video footage taken by ornithologist Edwin Scholes for the Cornell Lab of Ornithology Macaulay Library.


1 Dedicated to McQueen’s late muse Isabella Blow the collection showcased a flock of feathered hats and accessories designed by Treacy in ode to Blow’s penchant for plumes.

2 In 1919 there were 425 plumassiers plying their trade in Paris, in 1939 there were 88, in 1980 there were five and today there are only three including Maison Lemarié.

3 Where plumassiers in Paris concentrated on the preparation and handling of very fine and valuable exotic feathers, New York’s entrepreneurial Lower East side fostered the emergence of pop-up plumage sweatshops. As the following images from NYPL digital collection depict, young women and girls preparing feathers for sale in oppressive conditions for very low wages. One of the most onerous jobs was willowing, which consisted of lengthening the short strands of inferior feathers by tying on one, two or three extra flues on until the strand had the desired length and grace.


Many thanks go to Carlos Benevides and New York Vintage for sharing their wealth of knowledge with me and allowing me to photograph the collections.

Images reproduced with the kind permission of Merle Patchett/NYV, Gutenberg Press and Michelle Weremczuk.

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Birds-of-paradise thus continue to be, quite literally, devastatingly seductive. Yet their plumes and powers of seduction were never meant for us.