Society Swans

Last week I came across a box in the collection and, on opening it, discovered that nestled inside were swan’s wings. On further investigation I found that it was in fact a swan wing stole, comprising of two wings, presumably a left wing and a right wing, lined with quilted blue satin on the underside. Likely made in Britain or Europe, in the early 1900s.

T.10:1-2006, Stole © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

T.10:1-2006, Stole
© Victoria and Albert Museum, London

The stole belonged to a young woman who wore it to race meetings at Ascot and the Summer Season events in London between 1912 and 1913. At this period of time there was a craze for using parts of animals as ornaments and it wasn’t unknown to see woman wearing fox furs with heads still attached, stuffed birds adorning hats. Such were a symbol of one’s status in society. The idea of wearing swan’s wings seems to me to be a very specific announcement of one’s status, given that the swan is a royal bird.

T.10:1-2006, Stole © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

T.10:1-2006, Stole
© Victoria and Albert Museum, London

In the 12th century the Crown claimed ownership of all mute swans, and still today the British monarch retains rights of ownership over all unmarked mute swans in open water. However, Queen Elizabeth II exercises ownership only on certain stretches of the Thames and related tributaries. Two livery companies, the Vintners and the Dyers, have also shared rights to mute swans since 1472.

So this swan wing stole probably didn’t come about by royal appointment and is likely to be from a swan not owned by the Crown, but the wearing of it would almost certainly have boosted one’s appearance while at social events.

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