Hunting for Feathers

You may think that the impact of the fashion industry on our planet is a new thing. But our desire for the latest fashions has had a damaging effect on biodiversity – the variety of living species on our planet – for hundreds of years.

Featured paintings (and more ostrich feathers)

You may find it useful to look again at the portraits featured in the film.

Lord Mungo Murray (1668–1700), Son of 1st Marquess of Atholl

Lord Mungo Murray (1668–1700), Son of 1st Marquess of Atholl c.1683

John Michael Wright (1617–1694)

National Galleries of Scotland

Lady Simpson

Lady Simpson 1892

Valentine Cameron Prinsep (1838–1904)

Glasgow Life Museums

You could also explore with your students more ostrich feather accessories and portraits of people wearing or holding ostrich feathers. Use the carousel below or search the artworks on Art UK.

  • Ask students to discuss how the ostrich feathers are used and the type of people who might wear, or are wearing, the accessories.

Dressed to impress

In the Open University film, we discovered that portraits of the rich and famous were often used to communicate the latest fashions.

Although up until the twentieth century, portraits weren't generally seen by the wider public: the portraits were made to impress other wealthy and important people.

Art and Design activity: design a new accessory for Lady Simpson

The portrait of Lady Simpson was painted at the height of the nineteenth-century ostrich feather accessory craze. Her huge eye-catching ostrich feather fan is an accessory that 'makes' her outfit. 

Task students with designing an alternative accessory for Lady Simpson that will be just as eye-catching but far less ecologically damaging!

This could be a fan, a bag, jewellery or a hat. It doesn't have to look like a nineteenth-century accessory – encourage students to have fun designing a statement item for any era!

  • Students should sketch their designs and annotate their sketches with notes outlining the materials they will use.
  • They could also create a mock-up impression of Lady Simpson wearing (or holding) her new accessory, using collage or photo editing tools.

Top tips!

Students should make sure that their design is spectacular and glamorous enough to tempt Lady Simpson to ditch her ostrich feathers.

They could consider using recycled or sustainable materials. Artist Ruth Spaak has used recycled plastics to create this textured relief artwork. Imagine what a fabulous bag this would make!

Recycled Plastic Tile I

Recycled Plastic Tile I

Ruth Spaak

Leicestershire County Council Artworks Collection

Have a look at more artworks for accessory inspiration:

Animal furs and skins

Feathers are not the only animal attribute used to embellish clothing and reflect fashion and status.

Ask students if they can think of any other luxury fashion materials that come from animals.

Then look at this portrait as a class.

  • Who can you see in the portrait and how are they dressed?
  • Are they wearing any clothing or accessories that may have come from animals?

Queen Victoria (1819–1901)

Queen Victoria (1819–1901) 1842

Martin Archer Shee (1769–1850)

Royal Academy of Arts

This is a portrait of Queen Victoria. If you look closely at her cloak, you will see that it is lined with white fur with black spots on it.

This fur is called ermine and it was worn exclusively by royalty and the aristocracy. (In fourteenth-century England, ermine fur was ONLY allowed to be worn by members of the royal family.)

Edward II (1284–1327)

Edward II (1284–1327) c.1670 (?)

Wilhelm Sonmans (1650–1708)

Bodleian Libraries

Ermine is the winter coat of a stoat – the white tail has a black tip on the end – these are the black dots you can often see when ermine is used for clothing. The linings of coronation cloaks and trims for other garments were made by sewing ermine furs together. These were then often additionally embellished with the black-tipped tails.

Ermine was seen as symbolic of the qualities that kings and queens should have. According to medieval belief, an ermine would rather die than let its white fur get dirty – so ermine fur became associated with purity and the idea of 'death before dishonour'.

Fur, skins and endangered species

Ermine (or stoats) are still hunted and farmed for the luxury fashion industry today, although they aren't considered an endangered species.

But lots of animals that are hunted today for their fur or skin are endangered. This includes crocodiles, whose skin is used for handbags and footwear and is one of the most expensive leathers. In 2020, seven of the 23 crocodile species were listed as critically endangered and four were listed as vulnerable.

Crocodile with Sphinx

Crocodile with Sphinx c.1920–1930

Joseph Johnston Lee (1876–1949)

University of Dundee Fine Art Collections

Below is a list of some of the endangered animals that are hunted or farmed for their skin or fur. Share the list with your students and ask them to think about the type of clothing that might be made from these animals. You could also ask them to think about alternative materials that have similar properties – or could be designed to look similar – that could be used by fashion brands.

  • Alligators and crocodiles – some species are endangered.
  • Pythons – many species of python are on the red list of threatened species.
  • Australian Kangaroos – on the endangered list.
  • Lynx – the most expensive type of fur and the Iberian Lynx is the most endangered feline species.
  • Bears – many bear species are threatened with extinction.
  • Short-tailed chinchillas – native to the Andes in South America, short-tailed chinchillas have the thickest fur of all animals and are almost extinct.

Lady in Furs, Mme. P.

Lady in Furs, Mme. P. c.1907

William Nicholson (1872–1949)


Fashion communication, consumerism and fast fashion

We discovered, in the Open University film, that the desire for the latest fashions sped up in the nineteenth century. Printmaking helped promote new fashions to more people at a quicker pace. 

Prints of celebrities in the latest fashions were created and distributed. 

Fashion Plate*

Fashion Plate* (from 'Le conseiller des dames et des demoiselles') 1856

Anaïs Colin-Toudouze (1822–1899) and A. Leroy (active c.1856)

The Courtauld, London (Samuel Courtauld Trust)

Fashion plates – illustrations of fashion items – were also printed to tell people about the latest clothes, shoes and hairstyles. They were produced for the middle and upper classes. 

Fashion plate showing women's bonnets and hats

Fashion plate showing women's bonnets and hats

1880, hand-coloured engraving produced in Italy

Prints of fashionable women and the latest fashion 'must haves' also appeared in newspaper and magazine advertisements.

Fashion plate illustrating day dresses and a hat and coat

Fashion plate illustrating day dresses and a hat and coat

1883, hand-coloured etching produced in France

Fashion communication today

Discuss with students how fashion trends are communicated today and to what extent fashion adverts and marketing affect peoples' clothes shopping habits.

Discussion prompts:

  • What do you think is the equivalent of printed images today?
  • Where and how do you see new fashion trends marketed?
  • Who is wearing the clothes in the images you see?
  • What is it about an image that makes you want to buy a new outfit?
  • Have you ever bought clothing or an outfit after seeing an advert in your social media feed, online or in a magazine?
  • How much do you think these new forms of media encourage people to buy more clothes? 

Fast fashion

The development of the internet and social media has increased the visibility of the latest fashions and has helped to fuel what we call fast fashion.

Fast fashion is the manufacture of large amounts of cheap clothing in rapid response to catwalk trends. As new collections are being continuously produced, the style of the clothes we buy is soon 'out of fashion', worn just a few times and then discarded. 

Fast fashion and biodiversity

While hunting animals and birds for luxury fashion threatens the survival of some species, the huge increase in the manufacture and consumption of clothes since the 1990s is a more general threat to biodiversity. It causes habitat loss, pollution and climate change which all impact the lives of animals, fish and birds.

Activity: investigate the impact of fast fashion on biodiversity

Look at the artworks below as a class. Use them to think about and discuss some of the ways that fast fashion affects biodiversity.

  • You could start by discussing what the artworks show and ask students to think of words to describe them.
  • Then use the artworks as prompts to discuss how the increase in the manufacture and consumption of clothing is negatively impacting the planet.

Task outline

Assign students with ONE of the themes listed below to research. They could do this as a group or as individuals. (This would make a good homework project.)

  • Research information and gather key facts and figures.
  • Create a report or short illustrated presentation that can be shared with the class. 

1. Habitat loss

Research how the fashion industry affects animal habitats.


  • How does the manufacture of materials such as rayon and viscose lead to the destruction of forests?
  • Why does growing cotton damage animal habitats?
  • How does the farming of animals for leather threaten the habitats of wild animals?

Jungle Scene

Jungle Scene

Annette Lewin (b.1933)

Royal Free Hospital

2. Pollution

Research how the pollution generated by the fashion industry impacts biodiversity.


  • How does the preparing and dying of woven fabrics cause pollution?
  • How does the distribution of clothing to consumers around the globe cause pollution?
  • How do clothes continue to pollute even after they have been manufactured and sold?

'Dreams of Australia' Series, Fish

'Dreams of Australia' Series, Fish 2003

Antonia Phillips (b.1966)

Dorset County Hospital

3. Climate change

Research how the fashion industry contributes to climate change and how this threatens biodiversity.


  • How does the manufacture of clothes contribute to climate change?
  • How does the distribution of clothes contribute to climate change?
  • How does climate change impact on biodiversity?


Industry 1987

Leslie Frederick Clarke (1907–2000)

Erewash Borough Council

Helpful links

Encourage students to undertake their own research, but they may find these links helpful.

TED-Ed: The lifecycle of a t-shirt

The World is Ours: The impact of fast fashion

BBC Fashion Conscious: The astonishing amount of water used to make a pair of jeans!

Dressed to Kill: The impact of the fast fashion industry

Sustain your Style: Fashion's environmental impact

BBC: Five fashion materials you didn't realise were bad for wildlife

Art and Design activity: design a protest poster or banner

Task students with designing and making a poster or banner to make people aware of how our desires for the latest fashions can damage biodiversity.

  • The poster could highlight endangered species that are hunted for luxury fashion coats, bags and shoes.
  • Or it could make people aware of the damaging impact that fast fashion has on animal habitats.

Top tips!

  • The poster will need to be eye-catching enough to grab people's attention and make an impact.
  • It could include some of the shocking facts and figures relating to fast fashion. For example, did you know, it takes 10,000 litres to make a single pair of jeans? That's 70 bathtubs full of water!... How might you visualise this in a poster?
  • What about making the poster or banner from recycled materials – such as plastic bags or discarded clothes?

Poster design inspiration


Shout 2020

Greg Bunbury (b.1976)

Black Outdoor Art

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