My Uni dissertation was titled ‘Women’s Fashion in 19th-Century Literature.’ My research taught me a lot about fashion during that era. The Industrial Revolution was the turning point for fashion, and the industry began to produce clothing quickly and cheaply. Industrialisation also brought with it easier transportation, meaning clothing could be shipped easily.
The Victorian era was a big one for fashion. The more scientific and technological advances made, the more extravagant the industry could be. The expanse of the British Empire meant that they had access to an array of animals and fauna. As the Empire expanded, the range of animals at the industry’s disposal increased. However, the detrimental effects on the environment were still not understood, and the industry continued to destroy eco-systems as it does today.
This period of history was interesting for its scientific advances. Darwin’s theory of evolution created waves through society and the idea that humans evolved from animals created a sense of discomfort. ‘If the human race was not inherently distinct from other species but had evolved from animals, what guaranteed it could not evolve backwards and regress into its previous animal form?’ Fur is the oldest form of clothing and is still used today by indigenous people. However, the fur trend during 19th-Century Britain led to vast over-hunting, meaning some animals became almost extinct.
Exotic animals & plume hunting
By 1900, 5 million exotic birds a year were killed in the Florida everglades for their feathers. Hats with exotic feathers and birds were extremely popular during the late 1800s. Some hats had entire birds on them, often surrounded by flowers and silks. Plume hunting continued throughout the late 19th-century and into the 20th, but activists like Etta Lemon and Adelaide Knapp led the movement that eventually founded The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds. Again, indigenous people wore feathers on their clothes, but the birds were caught and released, rather than hunting them.
The weekly magazine, Punch, often published cartoons mocking women for their fashion choices. The picture below is from 1892 and criticises plume hunting – ‘the harpy Fashion appears still, and even increasingly, to make endless holocausts of small fowl for the furnishing forth of “feather trimmings” for the fair sex…their dying cries are described as “heart-wrenching.’ But they evidently do not rend the hearts of our fashionable ladies.’
The 19th-century sparked a new age of consumerism and it has only increased since then. Activism surrounding the use of fur and exotic animals in fashion has led many companies to go fur-free. But, the effects on the environment, habitats, and the ecosystem itself is still leading to animal suffering. Changes to the sourcing and manufacturing process need to be made in order to protect animals and their habitats. These changes are beginning to be discussed but the industry needs to shift as a whole. Looking at the history of fashion offers an interesting insight into how the industry has developed over time. The shifts we see today also allow us to infer where the industry is headed, and hopefully that is in a sustainable direction.