Feathers told unique stories as hats once ruled the day

Historically, wild animals accessories were utilized to decorate headdresses. This practice was feasible when animals were plentiful.

Spectacular were feather war bonnets awarded to leaders in the Great Plains Indian tribes such as the Sioux. Golden eagle feathers and often ermine skin and beadwork were displayed on these bonnets, which were worn occasionally in battle, but mostly for formal affairs. Striking was the trailer warbonnet with feathers flowing to the ground. Each feather told its story.

Other headdresses were unique. These included the porcupine roach (from which the Mohawk hairstyle is modeled), the buffalo horn helmet and the otter fur turban.

A brave might assemble his own headdress from feathers awarded him for courage in battle. It was rare to receive three feathers in a lifetime.

Most headpieces were worn by men. However, in a few Woodland tribes, the headband was worn by male or female, mostly for beauty. It was constructed with a feather or two from eagles or other birds. The feathers were attached to a decorated beaded or woven deerskin strip. Surely, the headband has been overused in popular images and movies.

Native Americans also introduced the coonskin cap, using the entire skin of the raccoon with the head and tail. Eventually, the cap became an icon for the frontiersman. Davy Crockett and Meriwether Lewis each wore one — but not Daniel Boone as was assumed. He claimed it was unstylish and selected a wide-brimmed felt hat or a beaver hat.

Actually, beaver felted readily and was popular for the European man’s hat around 1550 to 1850. A hat proclaimed the wearer’s status. Many headdresses were designed, such as top hats and military hats. Regrettably, four pounds of fur were required for one creation.

Around 1700, the United States and Canada became sources of beaver pelts for two centuries. Sweaty, second-hand beaver winter coats worn by Native Americans were preferred — long guard hairs were already shed from wear, thus exposing the soft underfur. In time, parchment (trapped) fur processing improved and was favored.

Ultimately, the Old and New World demand for beaver nearly caused the extinction of this animal. Fortunately, the silk hat became fashionable.

Furthermore, at the turn of the century, the female headdress threatened some migratory birds in our country. An entire bird (or more) might decorate just one chic hat. Plus, an egret headdress called the aigrette (French) consumed the feathers of four egrets. Finally, social outcry introduced alternatives, such as the silk and ribbon hat.

Awareness brings change. Accordingly, laws now protect wildlife. For example, only authorized Native Americans can legally obtain eagle feathers; violators might face high fines and imprisonment. As a substitute, processed feathers from the poultry industry can well embellish a fashionable headdress.