Hats: A Very UNnatural History by Malcolm Smith
From All-Creatures.org Book, CD and Video Review Guide

Author: Malcolm Smith

Interviewed by: Marc Bekoff, Psychology Today / Animal Emotions

Publisher: Michigan State University Press

Hats Unnatural History
Hats: A Very UNnatural History by Malcolm Smith
ISBN-13: 9781611863475
Available from Barnes & Noble


"For such simple garments, hats have had a devastating impact on wildlife throughout their long history...Made of wild-caught mammal furs, decorated with feathers or whole stuffed birds, historically they have driven many species to near extinction."

It's really a matter of who someone is wearing on their head, not what they're wearing

I recently learned of a fascinating book by biologist Malcolm Smith titled Hats: A Very Unnatural History. I'd never thought much about the relationship between fancy headwear and the decimation of wildlife–the incredibly high and deadly cost of fashion–and I wanted to know more about his unique book. I was pleased Dr. Smith was able to answer a few questions about the unnatural and murderous history of hats–about the sentient beings who people put on their heads. Our interview went as follows...

Why did you write Hats?

I’d always known that birds had been killed in the past so that their feathers could decorate ladies’ hats. I’d also thought that synthetic fur had largely replaced wild-caught animal furs for hats. But I did a bit of investigation. And what I found really shocked me. The scale of bird and mammal exploitation in the past had been enormous, bringing several species to the brink of extinction. And wild mammal killing for furs continued. Centuries of greed with seemingly no one caring about the implications! I was astonished. I thought it needed some thorough research and bringing to public attention. The story had never been told completely. Hence my book!

How does your book differ from others on the same or similar topics?

There are no other books that have told the whole story. Parts of the trade, especially the death and destruction caused to birds, have been written about in the past but even then only the trade in the last couple of centuries. The trade began many centuries before and can be related back further to several civilisations who used feathers (some still do) for head decoration. Plenty has been written about the real animal fur versus synthetic fur debate but most of it highly partisan from one side or other of this often very fractious argument. I wanted to write an objective account.

Who is your intended audience?

The millinery trade–who take a highly responsible attitude to feather use today–and anyone interested in costume, especially hat design and couture. Also, anyone interested in environmental issues and wildlife conservation, especially birds and mammals worldwide. With sustainability now an everyday watchword, my book is a study in how unsustainable something as seemingly harmless as making hats can be!

What are some of your major themes and messages?

No other human garment has had such a devastating and worldwide impact on wildlife as the hat. Not merely hat décor but its very structure. Quality hatting felt was made from the fur of beavers, mammals driven to the verge of extinction across Europe and North America.

Fur hats
Source: Malcolm Smith

Every day at the trade’s zenith in the late 19th century, hundreds of thousands of hunters around the world were laying traps for beavers, sable, martens, sea Otters and other fur-bearing animals in order to sell their pelts to make hatting felt and fur hats. Canada's economy was founded on beaver fur.

Other hunters were shooting tree-nesting egrets to cut off and sell their elegant nuptial nape plumes, the “aigrettes” sought avidly by milliners for hat decoration. Their bodies were dumped and their calling offspring left to starve.

In South American forests and on Caribbean islands, more hunters pointed long poles at nectar-laden flowers to wait for unsuspecting hummingbirds to adhere to their glue-smeared ends. Their populations were decimated.

At its peak, the hat trade was estimated to be killing 200 million birds a year. And it was a trade valued at over £20 million annually (£1.5 billion today) at the London feather auctions, the world’s largest. Weight for weight, exotic feathers were more valuable than gold! An owl head. A flurry of black-dyed ostrich feathers. A pair of snow-white, gossamer fine egret plumes. A whole stuffed bird of paradise. Or even a set of jewel-like hummingbirds, each one discreetly wired to pose as if they are about to take nectar from the artificial flowers that accompany them. Just some of the everyday hat decoration for any well-dressed Victorian lady.

Gents, too, were well served. All quality top hats...everyday wear in the late 1800s...were made of beaver fur; exclusively imported American Beaver at that time because their Eurasian cousins were all but extirpated.

Feathers hats
Source: Malcolm Smith

The quantities of feathers and whole bird skins sold at the turn of the 20th century almost defies belief. One London auction alone had 25,000 hummingbirds from the Caribbean, 6,000 birds of paradise from New Guinea and 6,000 ounces of aigrettes. It was all sold.

But change was to come. Slowly. By the late 19th century, some indomitable Victorian ladies in Boston, Massachusetts and in Manchester, UK vowed not to tolerate any longer this carnage of wild birds. They mobilised growing cadres of early conservationists that led to the creation of what have become two of the most influential bird protection organizations in the world, Audubon and the RSPB. They eventually got laws passed to ban the exotic feather trade.

But fashions changed too. The first automobiles appeared...a more potent fashion icon...and hats the size of a small coffee table decorated with flurries of feathers suddenly seemed ridiculous and impractical!

But synthetic fur hats have not eliminated the use of furs of wild caught or farmed wild mammals. That acrimonious debate between the fur industry and those promoting animal welfare is not going to end soon. So it is that most shtreimels worn on special occasions by Hasidic Jews are still made from the tails of Sable and martens while the Guards regiments of various armies still wear real bearskins as part of their ceremonial uniform.

How did the wearers of hats adorned with feathers, even wings and whole birds begin to justify the killings?

Did they assume, as many in the millinery trade tried to argue, that the birds’ feathers could be painlessly removed before the birds were released or that the feathers had been naturally molted? Or that millions of birds, somehow mostly exotically colored ones, were being picked up having died naturally and their feathers plucked? And that beavers needed to be killed anyway because of their supposedly destructive habits? Or was there a far more deeply held belief–much as held by the early European pioneers moving west in North America–that wildlife was placed on Earth by a generous Creator for them to exploit as they saw fit? There seemed to be no concept of sustainability; many species would have become extinct (it’s likely that some undescribed species did) if the killing spree had continued. And it seems likely that no one would have mourned their loss because there were plenty of other exploitable species available!

Are you hopeful things will change the ways people decide what to wear on their heads?

Today’s revival of feather-decorated hats has substituted domestic goose, cockerel and ostrich feathers for those of wild egrets and birds of paradise. The millinery trade is proud of its transition to sustainability. But I’m not hopeful that the use of fur hats in very cold parts of the globe will ever be substituted totally by synthetic fur. And fur farming, often with animals kept in appalling conditions (in spite of what the fur industry claims), doesn’t seem to me to be acceptable when perfectly warm and functional alternatives are available.

So have we learnt the lessons of over-exploitation? Not really. Mass market fashion provides cheap clothing without giving much thought to the conditions endured by those making them. And then we simply dump them when we are fed up with wearing them.

What are some of your current projects?

I’m pursuing the desperate need for much more wildlife-sensitive farming policies in the UK post-Brexit. The EU’s Common Agricultural Policy has industrialised much of the British landscape where intensive farming has destroyed vast areas of farmland wildlife habitat. European countries decry the felling of forested land such as in the Amazon Basin but are themselves destroying valuable wildlife habitat as farming becomes increasingly intensive!

About the Author:

Malcolm Smith is a biologist, a former chief scientist and deputy chief executive at the Countryside Council for Wales, and a former board member of the Environment Agency, Europe’s largest environmental regulator, for England and Wales.

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