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Feathers are in fashion but is an ostrich boa more acceptable than a mink coat?

Fashion is getting back to nature, in a riot of colourful floral patterns to be seen all over the catwalks. And if designers are mad about flora, quite a few are even keener on fauna and, more specifically, on adorning their creations with large amounts of plumage courtesy of our feathered friends. That all sounds rather heart-warming, but fashion can always be counted on to be fickle, and this season she has excelled herself.

There were fluffy boas in discreetly glamorous neutrals at Sonia Rykiel; marabou-swathed cocktail dresses in jewel shades at Lanvin and Giambattista Valli; at Kenzo, never shy of a bit of exoticism, clutches and totes came with rainbow-bright feathers to match those adorning the voluminous A-line dresses; and Alexander McQueen had entire wings sprouting from the bodices of some evening dresses and bird-of-paradise collars encircling the necklines of others.

It was an item at Roberto Cavalli, though, that proved the most thought-provoking. Nonchalantly slung over a chiffon dress was a coat covered with pale-brown feathers packed so tightly that from a distance it came to resemble that most symbolically charged of materials: fur. For, while fur remains taboo, especially in animal-loving Britain, feathers are rarely associated with cruelty to animals in the same way. This month's UK edition of Elle, for example, dedicates a page to the best feather buys around; it's hard to imagine an equivalent page being run on fur. And while the majority of London department stores went fur-free years ago, they have little problem with stocking a wide variety of clothes and accessories trimmed with feathers.

Generally considered to be a by-product of meat production, feathers are seen in the same sympathetic light afforded to leather. It is true that most of the plumage used in fashion these days comes from chickens, turkeys and pheasants before being treated and dyed. But while this might assuage consumer consciences, the issue ruffles the pro-vegan animal-rights group Peta.

"There's no kind way to rip feathers from any animal," insists Peta spokesperson Anita Singh. "Most birds have them painfully ripped off or cut out while they are still alive." In response, it's claimed by the fashion industry that the use of feathers is restricted to a limited number of birds and to those that are by-products of the meat industry or from farmed animals.

In fact, Peta's opposition echoes one of the oldest fashion concerns about the apparent mistreatment of animals. "In the 1890s, feathers were an obvious target because the plumage worn by women was more conspicuous than fur," explains Sonnet Stanfil, a curator in the department of fashion, furniture and textiles at the V&A. "It was particularly ridiculed in cartoons in publications such as Punch, where women were shown weighted down by hats with entire wings attached."

According to Stanfil, ridicule soon turned to disgust. "It tied into the change in public opinion regarding sacrificing animals for fashion in general. It was around this time that groups such as the sweetly named Feather, Fin and Fur Folk began to form, though I don't think they had any real success until the 1980s, and even that was focused on fur."

Nevertheless, the feather is staging one of its occasional comebacks. Where does our desire to deck ourselves out like birds of paradise come from? While fur was once a primitive necessity, providing protection from the elements, feathers have never been an efficient way of keeping warm. Rather, their allure has always resided more in their beauty and symbolism. During the 19th century, at the height of their popularity, colourful specimens from colonies such as India were signifiers of power and exoticism, and today they retain that old-school glamour.

But are feathers here to stay? Well, Jade Jagger and Kate Moss are happy to ignore decades of ethical campaigning and wear such a contentious product as fur – so we shouldn't expect too many to shed their plumages for anything other than reasons of fickle fashion.

Beauty spot: Preen with brushes that are as soft as a feather

By Eliisa makin

1. Perfect pout

Pointed lip brush, £9.95, by ScreenFace, tel: 020 7221 8289

Easily portable

2. Lay the basis

Foundation brush, £25, by Space.NK, www.spacenk.co.uk

Contoured to ease blending

3. Exquisite vision

Eye make-up brush, £23, byLaura Mercier, tel: 0800 123 400

Use both ends

4. A quick touch-up

Mini face brush, £27, by Bobbi Brown, www.bobbi brown.co.uk

Made with goat hair