The Fine Art of Feathering
In a world of digital darting to and fro and analysis on the fly, I don’t pretend to be a guide through the flurry of the Information Age (a seven year old would scoff at my blogging prowess) but I do feel respect and, in part, a sense of mission in preserving, or at least, reminding those who lurk nearby, of a time, a place and a talent that is in danger of becoming irretrievably lost.
Such is the art of feathering.
A plumassier is a craftsman whose business involves the preparation and handling of feathers. Feathers that were very fine and valuable that were provided at one time to modistes, or milliners, depending on demand. Yet feathering the royal bedchamber proved a brisk business for plumassiers as well, decorating furniture like a dais or the imperial bed. The feathers that were most frequently coveted and enlisted, by plumassiers to “feather the nest,” so to speak, of the manor borne were generally the finely textured and radiantly-hued plumage of peacocks, herons, and ostriches.
What prompted my small investigation into this very rare art was a piece that appeared in Women’s Wear Daily some time ago profiling one of the oldest plumassiers in Paris and one of the last remaining establishments of its kind anywhere in the world — Maison Lemarié. The reason for all the attention and press had everything to do with the participation of haute couture’s iconoclastic Karl Lagerfeld who had taken it upon himself to design the costume worn by prima ballerina Elena Glurdjidze, a senior principal dancer with the English National Ballet.
Founded in 1875, Maison Lemarié has enjoyed a kind of legendary reputation among plumassiers for both their exacting standards and their long standing relationship with Chanel.
In what can only be described as highly concentrated and minutely detailed work, the plumassier painstakingly treats, dyes and applies the fragile feathers which frequently embellish haute couture garments and various stage costumes. While a plumassier is considered a mere “artisan,” their breathtaking confections are more akin to a masterpiece of artistry. Sadly, due to the extinction of these beautifully endowed birds, it is a skill that is rapidly disappearing.
Mindful of preserving this rare art (in 1919 there were 425 plumassiers plying their trade in Paris, in 1939 there were 88, in 1980 there were 5 and today there are only 3 including Maison Lemarié), Chanel purchased a controlling interest in Maison Lemarié in 1997 via it’s Paraffection subsidiary, an initiative designed to protect and shield these time-honored crafts essential to the haute couture trade.
More on these traditional crafts that revere the precision and fragility that went into creating unimagined artistry can be found in L’oeil et la main: Les artisans de la haute couture (The Eye and Hand: The Artisans of Haute Couture) by Amandine Maziers and Johanna de Tessieres (Editions du collectionneur, 2005). Published in French, it is as one reader fittingly described: “a tribute to the creators of the shadows.”