From Hawaii all the way to Peru, indigenous peoples from ancient Mesoamerican societies used feathers for thousands of years to adorn their most prized members of society, such as royalty, priests, and warriors. In 'Feathered Mosaics', designer Sara Howell delves into the history of featherworking, its symbolism, and cultural significance. Using the versatility of feathers as a medium, Howell embraces her signature attention to feminine silhouettes to create inspired art worthy of the empress in every women of color.
Considered equal to precious gems like jade and turquoise, feathers sourced from colorful exotic birds were sold by merchants to Mesoamerican civilizations or were carefully extracted during tribal conquests. Once acquired, thousands of feathers were arranged in complex patterns to beautify crowns (Image 1), ceremonial garb, textiles, and more.
Known as featherworking, the precision and skill used to carry out this technique was awe-inspiring; In the Aztec community, those who manipulated the beautiful feathers even belonged to their own separate class. They lived and worked in a specific part of town, Tenochtitlan, and were referred to as the amanteca.
Image 1. Depiction of Peruvian Nobility, The Metropolitan Museum, NY
The feathers themselves were tokens of rarity, vibrant color, versatile shapes, and texture, and when arranged, they made designs that often told stories. In what many historians regard as a gift to the Pope, the Nahua governor Diego de Alvarado Huanitzin commisioned a featherwork depicting the scene of the Mass of St.Gregory. This well-preserved production from 1539 features many vibrant and iridescent tiny feathers attached to a wooden panel, and it was so meticulously arranged, the religious scene was strikingly clear and resembled that of a painting. Featherwork thus became some of the most highly prized artifacts of the period and still remain esteemed symbols of great artistry.
Of particular interest is the meaning imbued by these feathers and the objects they decorated. In these ancient civilizations, feathers were said to have magical properties, illustrating fertility, abundance, wealth, and spiritual power. Therefore, the resulting featherwork became a sign of royalty, rank, and even a gateway to the realm of gods.
For women specifically, like empresses or female shamans, they were said to become transcendental and take on the spirit of the bird they wore, granting them weightlessness, resilience, and grace. As birds were regarded as deities in these societies, featherwork thus granted one a status worthy of utmost respect. A technique widespread throughout Hawaii, Peru, Mexico and other indigenous civilizations, featherwork possessed a similar monumental significance no matter the location on the globe.
Image 2. Headpiece of Moctezuma II, Museum of Ethnology, Austria
"For women specifically, like empresses or female shamans, they were said to become transcendental and take on the spirit of the bird they wore, granting them weightlessness, resilience, and grace."
With careful consideration of the art, designer Sara Howell intends to honor the intention of these ancestors before us. With painstaking care and intention in the pieces that compose 'Feathered Mosaics', Howell bestows this regal significance to the women she designs for.
Each design boasts a carefully crafted narrative, like the smooth white to blue gradient representing the sky in Bluebird or the lively tapestry of colors representing the sacred quetzal present in Quetzal. Each garment in the collection was also appropriately titled with a name reflective of a bird that existed in ancient Mesoamerican times. Lastly, this collection is limited edition, with Howell making only a few of each piece to convey the individuality our ancestors desired for these constructions.
The resulting masterpieces, combined with a level of attention women of color always deserve, function to transport women to a place of empowerment, rich individuality and power in their divine femininity.