Plumes: Ostrich Feathers, Jews, and a Lost World of Global Commerce by Sarah Abrevaya Stein - review by Jonathan Mirsky

Jonathan Mirsky

Birds Of High Fashion

Plumes: Ostrich Feathers, Jews, and a Lost World of Global Commerce


Yale University Press 244pp £18

‘It is always good style to use a handsome ostrich plume to match or harmonise with your tailored suit, your afternoon or evening gown … In summer or winter nothing is more beautiful than the sweeping curves of the ostrich plume.' Or: ‘A well-dressed woman nowadays is as fluffy as a downy bird fresh from the nest … If you would be fashionable this winter, you will be beplumed.’ Those fashion tips were offered before 1914, when the vogue for plumes disappeared. And where are they now? Gone, except for Victorian hats in the attic and some feather dusters. 

I loved this book. I knew nothing about the subject, but Sarah Stein, professor of history at the University of California, Los Angeles, kept me going right to the last page, including most of the footnotes – despite her unwarranted anxiety that her comprehensive, meticulous, and fascinating history of an overwhelmingly Jewish trade might lead to anti-Semitism. 

Ostrich plumes, carefully cut from live farmed birds in South Africa, were an increasingly fabulous item from the mid-nineteenth century until the sudden collapse of the fashion and trade in 1914. I say fabulous advisedly: the few, rather paltry photographs in this book of women wearing plumed hats

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