Murderous Millinery

Fashion and the Fight for Suffrage

A decade before the suffragette movement began dominating headlines, a very different women’s campaign captured the public imagination in both England and America. Its aim was simple—to stamp out the cruel fashion for feathers in hats. For half a century, from the 1870s to 1920s, wild bird species were slaughtered around the world for the millinery trade in one of the most lucrative commodity markets on earth. The feather fight—fought on both sides of the Atlantic—was bitter, vicious and unsisterly.

On the side of God’s creatures was the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (chartered in 1904), led by the vehement anti-suffragette Etta Lemon. In the opposite camp, fighting for women’s rights, Emmeline Pankhurst urged her followers to use fashionable plumage to further their cause. Wearers of the ‘bird hat’—all too often Suffragettes—were attacked by the bird protection lobby as narcissists and slaughterers. Edwardian fashion victims hit back, calling their female attackers ‘plumage cranks’ and ‘frothy fanatics.’ Behind this feather fight was a trade worth around £204 million, entirely supported by exploited female labor—milliners, feather washers, child willowers of ostrich plumes.

Historian and author Tessa Boase will weave together the inspiring stories of two difficult, passionate Edwardian women, with opposite aims and convictions, both determined to start a revolution. She will expose the workings of the predatory plumage trade and the devastation it wrought upon migratory birds around the world. And she will shine a light on the fascinating back story of Mrs. Pankhurst’s elegant purple hat feathers, linking such murderous millinery to the subsequent passage of the 1918 Migratory Bird Act Treaty in America—legislation that put a swift end to the hunting of birds for the feather trade.

Thank you to our co-sponsors: The New York Society Library; The Colonial Dames of America

The Duchess of Portland (Winifred Cavendish-Bentinck) in her robes for the coronation of King Edward VII of the United Kingdom (1902)

The Duchess of Portland (Winifred Cavendish-Bentinck) in her robes for the coronation of King Edward VII of the United Kingdom (1902)

Tessa Boase 2019

Tessa Boase 2019

Tessa Boase

Journalist & Author

Historian and author Tessa Boase read English at Oxford, and has worked as a commissioning editor at The Daily Telegraph and Daily Mail. As a freelance journalist she has contributed to a wide variety of publications. Her first book, The Housekeeper’s Tale, which featured many National Trust properties, was published by Aurum in 2014. She is married with children and lives on the Sussex coast. Her latest book is Mrs. Pankhurst’s Purple Feather: Fashion, Fury, and Feminism—Women’s Fight for Change (Aurum, 2018).

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Monday, May 13 | 6:15 p.m.
Reception and book signing following lecture


The General Society Library
20 West 44th Street


$30 members; $40 non-members

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