Photograph by Bryan Bedder, Getty Images for Swarovski

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Model Lily Donaldson is adorned with feathers at the 2013 Victoria's Secret Fashion Show taping on Nov. 13, 2013 in New York City.

Photograph by Bryan Bedder, Getty Images for Swarovski

Victoria's Secret: The Story Behind the Feathers

Feathers have been a fashion statement for millennia. They play the same alluring role for humans as they do for birds.

(Updated December 10, 2013)

A flock of models clad in a minimum of lingerie and an excess of feathers will land on your television screen tonight (December 10). The occasion for the fine-feathered frenzy (angel wings, feathered bustles, and a feathered bustier)—not to mention a $10 million, 18-karat gold "fantasy bra" encrusted with diamonds and rubies—will be the 18th annual Victoria's Secret Fashion Show to be broadcast by CBS at 10 p.m. EST, 9 p.m. CST.

"We supplied about 620,000 feathers for the show," said Jon Coles, a partner in the Dersh Feather Company, located in New York's garment district. (Angel wings are a Victoria's Secret company icon, hence the proliferation of plumage.) The feathers ranged from five- or six-inch-long chicken feathers to 50-inch-long Chinese pheasant plumes. "No endangered species. All domesticated birds," he added. "We want to sleep the sleep of the just at night."

Ostrich feathers, Coles says, are cut, not plucked, from farmed animals. Don't worry, they grow back. Chickens and other domesticated fowl give their feathers in the name of fashion as a byproduct of their trip to the supermarket.

The feather business has had a soft landing this year. Feathers turn out to be one of this year's trends. The Wall Street Journal reports that feathered peplum tops have been flying out of Barneys' doors, and designers like Proenza Schouler are offering such bagatelles as a $14,200 ostrich skirt.

Feathers: Always in Fashion

It's nothing new, really. Fashion endlessly recycles; feathers have been an ornament of dress for a very long time—millennia, in fact. Marco Peresani at the University of Ferrara in Italy, who found bird bones mixed in with Neanderthal bones in a cave in northern Italy, posits that because the wing bones were cut and scraped where the feathers were attached, our early ancestors used feathers to accessorize their animal skins.

Fast-forward to the Elizabethan era, when the big fashion statement was feather fans and headdresses. "Then in the 1880s, they began to plunk whole stuffed birds on hats," says Elizabeth Ann Coleman, curator emeritus for textiles and fashion arts at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. During the height of the "plume boom" in the 19th century, South African ostrich plumes were so much in demand that their value per pound was almost equal to diamonds, according to Sarah Stein, a history professor at UCLA.

The dark side of the equation in the 19th century was the decimation of wild birds like the snowy egret for the millinery industry—which was a catalyst for the founding of the Audubon Society and the passage of federal conservation laws, beginning with the Lacey Bird and Game Act in 1900.

In addition to conjuring images of Vegas showgirls and Hollywood movie stars (think Gloria Swanson) and ceremonial use like the red parrot cape worn by a high-ranking Maori or the eagle feather headdress of a Comanche chief, feathers signal extravagant excess. A dress made of swan feathers was among the artifacts found hanging in palace closets when deposed Philippines President Ferdinand Marcos and his wife, Imelda, abruptly exited Manila in 1986.

Ethereal Sex Appeal

But there's another layer of meaning to be teased out. Feathers are sexy.

"It's the tactile feel of them," says William Ivey Long, a Tony Award-winning designer for the New York stage who used an aviary's worth of feathers in costumes for shows like La Cage Aux Folles, among others. "Then there is the visual, as in the luxurious opulence of an ostrich boa.

"You know," he adds, "it's the male plumage about which we are speaking, so perhaps there is something deep down about caressing male plumage on the female body."

In addition to their sensual nature, feathers are titillating. A puff of air, a slight breeze, and who knows what might be revealed? Feathers sigh with sex—whether in the flirtatious wave of a feather fan or a Jean Harlow marabou-tipped gown.

But of course. Fashion, you see, is in no small way about sex. Biologists theorize that birds with brighter plumage and swallows with longer tails are more successful at mating than their more ordinarily attired counterparts. Call a feathered boa frivolous, but it is indisputably sexy, and sex, after all, is how we go about ensuring the continuity of the species.

"In that sense, fashion is about survival," Elizabeth Ann Coleman says. There is nothing frivolous about that.