Alexander McQueen Fall 2009. Photo by Francois Nars.
Alexander McQueen Fall 2009. Photo by Francois Nars.

During the Gilded Age, the feather-bedecked hat was so ubiquitous a feature of feminine wardrobes that some bird populations were decimated. “It’s funny to think, but the idea of animal rights in some ways started with these hats because some of these birds ended up as protected species,” says Karen Van Godstenhoven, the curator of "Birds of Paradise," currently on view at the Mode Museum in Antwerp. The exhibition examines the use of feathers in fashion, from the coveted ostrich that were among the most expensive status symbols of the 1920’s, to Marlene Dietrich’s iconic swans down coat, to the use of feathers by contemporary designers such as Alexander McQueen and Ann Demeulemeester. Given special consideration is Maison Lemarié, the Paris atelier that is to the art of plumissage what the Maison Lesage is to embroidery. Though designers no longer use exotic feathers—conservation concerns, not to mention costs, rule that out—Lemarié, says Van Godstenhoven, “can make a chicken feather look like it was plucked from a bird of paradise.”

“Birds of Paradise,” is at Mode Museum Antwerp through August 24, 2014. +32 3 470 27 70, momu.be.