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Fashion, Feathers, and Audubon

Celebrating the surprising connections between John James Audubon, two determined Boston socialites, and the Audubon Society of South Carolina

You may not recognize the names of Harriet Lawrence Hemenway and Minna Hall, but the efforts these women made to avian conservation cannot be overstated. It is thanks to Hemenway and Hall that John James Audubon’s legacy is further immortalized through the National Audubon Society. Today, Audubon South Carolina is proud to honor the legacy of these two crusaders, and Audubon himself, with our inaugural “Fashion for Feathers” event as part of the Southeastern Wildlife Expo.

Audubon, a French Creole ornithologist and artist of unparalleled achievement, had a special connection to South Carolina. Here he found financial support, friends, and perhaps most importantly, inspiration from the state’s rich and diverse landscapes, which support hundreds of birds throughout their lifecycles. 

Audubon’s "The Birds of America” published in 1827, and his five subsequent volumes known as the "Ornithological Biography," remain among the most significant scientific, artistic, and intellectual accomplishments in American History. South Carolina was the first state to recognize the significance of Audubon's achievement when the Legislature ordered three folios from "Birds of America," currently housed at the University of South Carolina. 

Through his exquisite artwork, Audubon helped inspire a nation to love birds. But, we very nearly loved them to death. In the late 1800s, the trend among fashionable women was to wear hats adorned with feathers, wings and even entire taxidermied birds. Thanks to the fashion craze of the day, populations of Snowy Egrets, Great Egrets and other wading birds were being decimated. In fact, an estimated 50 North American species were being slaughtered for their feathers.

In 1896, after reading an article about the plume trade, Hemenway enlisted her cousin Hall to help put a stop to the wanton industry, which was known for indiscriminately slaughtering entire rookeries. The cousins, themselves Boston socialites, launched a series of tea parties among their wealthy peers encouraging them to boycott the use of feathers.

After recruiting approximately 900 women to join their boycott, Hemenway and Hall formed the Massachusetts Audubon Society that same year. Audubon societies began forming in other states, eventually becoming the federation founded by George Bird Grinnell known as the National Audubon Society. Grinnell, as it happened, was tutored by Lucy Audubon, John James’s widow.

On March 16th, 1907, the South Carolina Legislature created the Audubon Society of South Carolina, with powers of a State Game and Fish Commission.  James Henry Rice, Jr.—grandfather of current sitting U.S. Representative for South Carolina's 7th congressional district Tom Rice—was designated Audubon’s First Secretary; and Mrs. Augustine Smythe of Charleston was the sole woman nominated to the original Board of Directors. 

After its inception, letters began to pour in all across the state asking for help from the Audubon Society of South Carolina, and residents lauded the effort to preserve these valuable assets to the commonwealth.

As captured by the first president of the Audubon Society of South Carolina,  B. F Taylor, in his 1908 report to the South Carolina Legislature: “Every farmer in South Carolina should be a loyal friend of the Society, which is laboring to preserve the valuable insect-eating and weed-destroying birds, by whose efforts in field and grove his lands are enabled to produce their annual yield. And then the outlook is bright because the movement is a good one and is founded on good, sensible principles.” 

Carrying on the legacy of Hemenway and Hall, Audubon and its 1.4 million members nationwide continue to mobilize in protection of birds and the habitats they need, now and in the future.

Join us on February 15 for Fashion for Feathers, a celebration of the beauty of the birds that continue to inspire our imaginations and sense of wonder, and the evolution of the fashion industry and its commitment to instilling beauty into clothing in responsible ways that connect us to other cultures and lands that are all a part of birds’ journeys through life. That includes the landscapes of South Carolina, which many birds need now more than ever.

Seating is limited, so act now to reserve your tickets for this exciting fashion show luncheon at the brand new Hotel Bennet in Charleston. Take in a runway of trendsetting looks from Beckett BoutiqueBrackish BowtiesCroghan's Jewel BoxM. Dumas and Sons and IBU while enjoying fine wine and delicious food prepared by renowned culinary master and “Top Chef” alum Michael Sichel.

All proceeds will benefit Audubon South Carolina.