Copyright Sarah Hartwell, 2014

Fur, sometimes from cats, has long been used in clothing, both for warmth and decoration. Well into the 20th Century it wasn’t unusual to wear fur stoles that still had the head, legs and tails attached. The fashion for using kittens’ heads to trim the elaborate hats of the late 19th century evolved from the “feather fashion” trend of the mid 1800s.


Fur coats and fur trim from many farmed and trapped mammals were widely used at the time and cat skins could be passed off as other species in coats and wraps, but to understand how kittens’ heads became fashion accessories, we need to look at a fashion trend of the time - hats. Skins, plumes, wings and gaudy feathers of exotic birds had been widely traded for decorative use since the 1860s. London became the centre of trade for these exotic feathers, while Paris and New York were the manufacturing centres for feather trimmings for hat ornamentation. In addition to feather cockades, it sometimes looked as though a bird had alighted and roosted on a woman’s already elaborate hairstyle; sometimes there appeared to be a tableau of small birds such as hummingbirds.

The American hat craze was in full swing in the 1880s – extravagant hats sported a variety of animal parts: feathers, quills, whole small birds, birds’ wings, fur, whole mice and whole small reptiles in addition to fruit, flowers, ribbons and lace. The height of exotic feather fashion in Britain, particularly London, was 1901 to 1910. This was the “plume boom” and it used native species as well as exotic birds. Hats were big business. In 1889 in London and Paris, over 8,000 women were employed in the millinery trade. In 1900 in New York, some 83,000 people – mostly women – were employed in the trade.

Murderous Millinery – The New York Times Saturday Review, July 31, 1898: A woman in Paris or London may discover that the tail of a bird “sets her off.” She walks forth, and lo! Tails are the rage, and millions of birds have been slaughtered for the mere gratification of tender-hearted woman. It is not an exaggeration to say that in whatever part of the world beautiful birds are found there will be found also the agents of the draper and the milliner. The part they play is that of supplying the demand. Woman wants. The striking expression “murderous millinery” is current in speeches and writing on the subject. “Feather-headed women,” as indeed they are in more ways than one, is a term which might be used more frequently than it is with much advantage. Surely they invite some such public stigma by exhibiting themselves as they do in the relics of murdered innocence.

In the late 1890s, bird protection groups, known as Audubon Societies, were founded across the USA to combat the feather trade and to protect birds. Between 1905 and 1918, various laws were passed in the USA to curtail, and finally ban, the killing of birds for their feathers and the import of plumes. Only feathers from domestic poultry could be used for ornamentation. The well-to-do abandoned feather fashion and as demand dropped, so did prices. Middle- and lower-class women were now able to afford feather fashion. In Britain, where the height of the feather fashion fad was 1901 to 1910, the Plumage Bill was passed in 1920.

Although the enthusiasm for bird-trimmed bonnets waned, the end of the extravagant hat fad was not due to conservation awareness, but to a change in hair fashion. In 1913, short hairstyles became the rage and these could not support the heavy, elaborate hats that required hat pins to keep them in place. Lighter, plainer hats came into fashion.


Paris was considered to be the trendsetter, but one particular millinery trend did not appear to cross the English Channel or the Atlantic Ocean – the 1880s fashion for using kittens’ heads and baby squirrels’ head on hats. Dead furry faces now peeped out of feathers or foliage. While there was always a surplus of kittens in that era, the look became so popular that kittens were apparently specially bred to meet the demand of milliners and their fashionable customers. Kittens’ heads were also used on muffs (hand warmers) and purses.

NEW PARISIAN COSTUMES - THE MODISTES BUSY - KITTENS' HEADS AS MUFF ORNAMENTS (The New York Times, October 4, 1883; The St. Andrews Bay Pilot, Oct 18, 1883):

PARIS, Oct 3. - Paris is very animated in the Bois, at the Salon trienniel, the Hippodrome, the Cirque, the Porte St. Martin - where "Frou Frou" is drawing crowds - at the grand bazaars, where their exhibitions of silks, velvets, and nouveautes d'hiver, in the fashionable restaurants - and above all, in the environs of the Rue de la paix. Elegant mondaines and demi-mondaines are visible daily in full force, and the salons of the great couturiers are invaded by fair ladies in quest of new toilets - costumes de chateau, costumes for hunting, shooting, and 5 o'clock tea. Here are three new hats that were noted at the Salon yesterday. A toque of black tulle, embroidered with Pompadour sprigs of bright flowers in front; a large loosely looped rosette of Rose Dubarry ribbons, and in the midst of that a richly jeweled owl's head. A Henri IV hat of yellowish, long pile beaver, the brim flat and narrow, on one side a nest of mice, forming a bow. A blue soft felt hat, on one side a bow of blue velvet and satin, on which is placed a bird with open wings, and from under the bow emerges a kitten's head. The demand for kittens' heads has become so important that cat breeding has become a regular business. Pigeons' wings and cock's heads are also much worn, and the muff of the season will be velvet or plush, to match the dresses, with a kitten or hirondelle de mer on the front.

Fort Wayne Sunday Gazette (Indiana), Sunday, October 28, 1883; The Indiana Herald, 26 December 1883; The Herald-Despatch, 19 January 1884 (all apparently picked up from the Chicago Herald): Fashion, omnipotent fashion, promises to do what centuries of bootjacks, fire shovels, cuspidors, and other utensils convertible into missiles of distinction have failed to accomplish. For countless ages' such household articles have been aimed at howling midnight cats by victims whose sleep was banished by caterwaulings. Cats have been hit and the breath has temporarily left their bodies, but it is not on record that midnight cat meetings have ever been broken up through denuding a bed-chamber of utensils that might be hurled at the feline foes of slumber. The next night the cats invariably reassembled as if by request. But, unless fashion should suddenly change her mind, relief would appear to be at hand. Kittens' heads are extensively used by fashionable milliners in Paris for the trimming of ladies' hats and bonnets. So large has become the demand that Paris backyards are nightly invaded by cat-hunters, and the breeding of kittens for their heads has become regular business. Paris sets the fashions, and this demand for kittens' heads must extend all over the world. The cat with a litter of young ones will be unable to send then out into the world to imitate her own dissipated career. They will have their little heads chopped off, and the self-same little heads will be used to adorn the millinery of the fashionable lady. - If this fashion should hold out a year or two, nocturnal caterwaulings will be heard no more, and a single boot-jack may last a man a lifetime.

“Gleanings,” Honesdale (PA) Wayne County Herald; an issue from 1883 noted: “Kittens’ heads are to take the place of birds’ heads on the coming bonnets.”

FASHION NOTES by Jenny Wren in the Observer, 7 February 1885: “The very latest addition to bonnet adornments are twigs - little faggots really tied up, or the pieces stuck in separately. We have had mushrooms, birds and their nests, even "kittens' heads, and dear little woolly ducklings, but we are to have twigs varnished or gilt out of all reason, with birds perched upon them - such are the vagaries of fashion.”

Would British or American women have adopted the kittens’ head hat craze? Possibly as this Christmas fancy goods advert from the Fort Wayne Sentinel, December 20, 1886 suggests: “Purses made out of cats' or kittens' heads are the newest for change. Although reputed "from Paris," they are made in New York, for purses go to GEORGE DEWALD CO”

There was a reference to the fashion in the children’s section of The Maitland Mercury and Hunter River General Advertiser (New South Wales), Saturday 7 July 1888. MERCURY JUNIOR: A SEVERE LESSON. CHAPTER II.

Miss Tucker rubbed her cheek with her thimble to hide a smile that was called up by some half-forgotten reminiscence, and continued seriously " Now girls, I'll tell you just how it is. Men like a frisky kitten to play with, and like to tease it to see it spit and scratch ; but when they want one to keep, they pick out one that'll cuddle down and purr, and it's just so, girls, in human natur'. They like to joke and spar with a girl that'll give 'em back smart answers, but when a sensible man picks out a wife, he don't want that kind. He'll go for one that is sweet-tempered and domestic. But I must go now, and get a drink of water, for I'm as dry as a contribution-box."

"Wait just a minute. Tell us something about the fashions, we don't see anything in this out-of the-way place. Is it true that feathers has gone out of style ?" asked one.

" They say birds is going to be all the rage in the autumn. One of my ladies who is just come from Paris says birds of all sizes and species is to be worn. Yes, girls, you can safely wear anythin' between a peacock and a thistle bird."

[…] " The worst thing T ever heard of," said a quiet looking girl who had not spoken before, " is that kittens' heads have been worn on muffs. Isn't it frightful ? Do you think any one could do such a cruel thing ?"

"I never see any myself, but I don't doubt it. People given over to fashion will go to most any length.”

Luckily fashion changes quickly, albeit not quickly enough to save millions of small animals and birds from become hat decorations, and the fur-and-feather hat fad died out. While most readers will have been aware of the “plume boom”, few will have been aware that, for a while, hats were accessorised with kittens.


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