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International Style


ABOVE  This surprising garment, which to today's eyes seems exotic, represents a popular fashion among stylish women in the 1820s and '30s.

Remarkably, feathered pelerines, or capes, were commonly seen on fashionable women in America and abroad during the 1820s and 1830s. The taste for brilliantly colored examples such as this one may have been inspired by a visit to England by the King and Queen of Hawaii in 1824. Although the royal family tended to wear European dress during their stay, some of their retinue were robed in traditional Hawaiian feathered capes and headdresses. Popular lithographs of the royal visit could have carried the fashion across the world.

About the only thing we know about these feathered pelerines is that they were not made in Hawaii, both because of the technique of fabrication and because the feathers are not from Hawaiian birds. While a number of capes like this example survive in museum collections, little is known about them. Museums have had a hard time categorizing them, often placing them in ethnographic collections instead of with American and Euro-pean costumes. It is possible that they were made in England, from feathers imported from all over the world or from birds kept in English aviaries, but no documentary evidence to support their manufacture there has come to light as yet.

Another intriguing possibility was handed down by the donor who gave this cape and one other to SPNEA (now Historic New England) in 1923, suggesting that they had been made by Chinese craftsmen at the Cape of Good Hope. The Smithsonian Institution has a similar story in its records for a pelerine in its collection, attributing its origin as South Africa and stating that it may have been “Collected by a sea captain about 1840; made by native artisans or by Chinese for the local gentry.” Perhaps research in South Africa will uncover evidence of an industry that thrived briefly in the early years of the nineteenth century to supply these feathered marvels to fashionable women in England, Europe, and America.

-Nancy Carlisle

International Style