From luxury furs to bold safari prints, the fashion community has long been enamoured with the animal kingdom. In early eras, symbolic wildlife imagery appeared on regal gowns, as with Elizabeth I’s menagerie-themed showstopper captured in a portrait by Nicholas Hilliard in 1599. Similar emblems have stalked this century’s runways, with sultry gazelle-like women strutting their stuff in exotic skins crafted by the zookeeper of nineties fashion, Roberto Cavalli. Most recently, jungle fever was diagnosed at Louis Vuitton, whose Spring/Summer 2011 showcase featured tiger-claw spindle heels and stilettos in the shape of zebra legs. Wild.
Of all the animals it is the humble bird – albeit closely followed by Eurotrash favourite, the leopard – who has ruled the roost largely thanks to the theatrical potential of an oversized plume or a perfectly poised beak. But while furs and prints make an obvious sartorial statement – evoking a sense of wealth, extravagance and exclusivity – avian symbolism, especially in the context of a dead stuffed animal, suggests something darker and altogether more complex.
As a species, birds are littered with contrasting allegories - from the chirpy blue jay, a symbol of power and prosperity, to the connotations of death, war and misfortune that come with ravens and other carrion-eating species. Birds also have a colourful role in mythology, for centuries they have been seen as a link between the human world and aspects of the divine and supernatural.
More than any other animal, birds tread the line between good and evil, and their adoption in fashion has been much the same, seesawing between cheery odes, as with Burberry’s nod to British gentlemanliness with their duck handled umbrellas or Miu Miu’s chintzy sparrow print, to dramatic statements as with Bill Gayten’s theatrical – and faintly macabre - taxidermy headpieces for Galliano Autumn/Winter 2012.
Birds’ diverse symbolism is matched by their broad appeal. Throughout history ornithoid enthusiasts have ranged from Native American tribes and Tudor courtiers, eager to make a splash at the lavish masqued ball, to pumped up showgirls shaking their plush plumage on the stage of the Moulin Rouge.
At a simplistic level, birds’ role in fashion has been as an item of luxury. In the consumerist and hedonistic era of pre-revolution France – where sartorial showdowns were rife – one particularly zealous fashionista is said to have instructed her hairdresser to create a towering hairstyle, complete with an ornamental cage and live bird in the centre. Exotic birds were also a popular pet for the rich and famous – the teacup chihuahua of the past. The trend dates back to ancient Greece, where members of the aristocracy would keep mynas as companions. In the thirteenth century, Pope Martin V even deemed it necessary to appoint a Keeper of The Parrots at the Vatican. Legend has it that there is a room still there today named Camera di Pappagallo, or The Parrot Room. Similarly, history’s favourite fashion pin-up, Marie Antoinette, kept a pet African grey, and even Queen Victoria – rarely remembered for her fun or frivolity – is rumoured to have had a pet parrot which was trained to sing God Save the Queen.
The adoption of feathers and birds as an item for dress promoted many of the same indulgent values. Only those of social standing could afford the extortionate price of plumage. It was a symbol of elegance and refinery, perfectly exemplified by images of Lisa Fonssagrives – who pioneered the term supermodel before Linda and Cindy had even taken their first baby steps – sitting regally in an oversized feathered hat in front of Irving Penn’s lens. And who could forget Carrie Bradshaw’s famous lamentation when left at the alter by Big, ‘I put a bird on my head!’ Indeed, the act of wearing feathers takes effort, expense, and guts.
It’s very apt that Hitchcock’s acclaimed masterpiece The Birds – a legendary depiction of the creatures’ darker connotations - opens with Tippi Hedren, playing affluent young socialite Melanie Daniels, perusing the finery in a San Francisco bird shop. Here luxury commodity meets dark phobia. The Jekyll and Hyde nature of birds is perfectly captured – on the one hand delicate, frivolous and charming, on the other malicious, violent and sinister.
Given this dance between light and dark, it’s unsurprising that Hitchcock proved such an influence on famed bird-lover Alexander McQueen. His 1994 collection The Birds - which featured a soundtrack of screeching and squawking - was entirely inspired by the filmmaker’s work. McQueen’s avian-obsession started at a young age. As a teenage he joined the Young Ornithologists’ Club and spent his after-school evenings sat upon the roof of his block of flats watching the birds fly above him. In tune with Hitchcock, it was the contradictory elements of the creatures that inspired McQueen. They sat perfectly within his broader vision, which polarised between vibrant beauty and dark, macabre statements. Sometimes elegant - as with the feathers and plumes scattered on the gowns in Deliverance from Spring/Summer 2004 - and sometimes ominous - as with his infamous Voss from Spring/Summer 2001, which saw models clad in triple-headed taxidermy hats while trapped in an asylum-like glass box - birds flew unrestrained from collection to collection.
McQueen once commented that he sought to ‘transpose the beauty of a bird to women.’ Fragility, flightiness and delicacy were combined with strength, vivacity and vibrancy in McQueen’s view of femininity. It’s fitting that in her work on Hitchcock for the BFI Film Classics series, academic Camille Paglia argues that The Birds is an ode to the varying aspects of women's sexual glamour. ‘In this film, as in so many others, Hitchcock finds woman captivating but dangerous. She allures by nature, but she is the chief artificer in civilization, a magic fabricator of persona whose very smile is an arc of deception.’
McQueen’s vision of woman was much the same. His La Dame Bleue collection from Spring/Summer 2008, a tribute to his late friend Isabella Blow, used birds and animals of all species and guises to symbolise varied emotions and tones. Everything from a vivacious technicoloured parrot-inspired gown to a structured black cocktail dress encased in majestic gold wings took a turn on the catwalk, symbolising the many facets of Blow’s persona. On the one hand joyful on the other tragic, McQueen saw woman’s contradictions reflected in the diversity of the bird.
John Galliano – another of this century’s great visionaries - found similar inspiration in the avian community, dubbing his muse ‘a contemporary bird of paradise.’ As with McQueen, Galliano’s birds were not about mere beauty. His feathered Stephen Jones hats, worn with cartoonish fifties hourglass shapes for Dior Haute Couture Spring/Summer 2009 or blood-red hunting jackets and fox fur for Autumn/Winter 1999, smacked of something altogether more pointed and savage. This was woman and beast combined.
It’s no coincidence that on returning to home turf after a widely panned debut at Givenchy – where the pressures of a huge French corporate machine proved too much – McQueen used his eponymous 1997 collection to make a statement about the animalistic cruelty of the designer world. Emphatically titled It’s A Jungle Out There, the showcase saw models take to the runway in furs, horns and hides in front of a sinister backdrop of corrugated iron screens decorated with bullet holes. The message was clear – McQueen, like his beloved birds, was in a cage.
Fashion is an inherently animalistic pursuit. Based on primal lust, uncontrolled desire and unbreakable hierarchies. The bird – always perfectly positioned between beauty and fear, poise and mania - is a worthy emblem, aptly employed. Volatile, fragile and unpredictable, just like the industry itself.