Fine feathers make fine hats…?


This very handsome hunk came strutting his stuff on to the pitch I was staying on at the campsite at Chatsworth House (one stays just outwith the boundary of the estate but with access – via a key to the wooden door set in the wall – to the estate, house and garden, a short walk away).

Not only was he strutting, he was clucking and calling quite a lot too; he was in no doubt that he looked the bees knees with his fine, glossy feathers. Perish the thought that anyone would want to get their hands on them and use them for decoration. Yet that is exactly why the RSPB was set up, many years ago, to protect birds whose feathers were being used to decorate ladies’ hats, clothing and other accessories in the Victorian era.

This visiting pheasant strolled by soon after I’d visited Chatsworth House where the current exhibition was about the clothes and costumes worn by visitors to the house over the centuries. I didn’t go specifically to see this and only found it superficially interesting. Rather, it was more thought-provoking to see models dressed in the opulent finery worn to dinner parties and fancy dress events.

So much money and wealth – even in days gone by – was owned and used by so few to adorn themselves, to buy the best available, just because they could, and then wear it and strut their stuff amongst their peers. A sort of “Who has the best designer label outfit” one man or woman upmanship.

Yes, some of the costumes on display were lavish and beautifully jewelled and decorated. But even as I appreciated the work that had gone into making them I was thinking back to things I’d learned at school in history lessons – the days in London of the gin palaces, of destitute workers drowning their sorrows with cheap spirits, the filth in the streets and gutters, children working as chimney sweeps. Poverty itself could be defined as a class as well as a condition. How much has changed?

Setting the stunning glossy feathers of my visiting pheasant alongside the glittering riches of the costumes I’d seen in the exhibition, I know which I prefer; the natural beauty of the feathers in situ doesn’t need any tweaking or tarting up. It just is. The feathers belong to the birds. And as far as I’m concerned, that’s where they should stay.

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