When Jean Harlow had only a minute to primp for a reluctant lover, she knew exactly what to reach for. "Tina, quick," the negligee-clad Harlow barked to her maid in the 1933 film Dinner at Eight: "Get me that other jacket. The one with the fur." Tina whipped out a white satin bed jacket trimmed in marabou, Harlow slipped into it, and the next thing we knew, she and the paramour were locked in passionate embrace. Cut to a quivering glob of aspic.
Harlow had it wrong, of course. Marabou isn't fur. The original owner of that fluffy stuff on her bed jacket was an African stork with a huge pointed beak, a bald head, a retractable pouch on its throat, reedy legs, and an eight-and-a-half-foot wingspread. Marabou eat dead meat, hang out with vultures, and stand tall enough to look Harlow in the eye. They are so ugly not even the shawl of soft white feathers around their shoulders and chest can help.
On a piece of lingerie, however, marabou feathers are magic. A cuff of the floaty stuff around a sleeve or hem, or across the instep of a high-heeled mule, is as good as a gallon of musk, even if you're not a platinum bombshell with a maid to turn down the satin sheets. Softer and more delicate than ostrich feathers, marabou trimmed the night wear of several generations of would-be femmes fatales in the early years of this century.
You don't see it much anymore, and anything new purporting to be marabou is likely to be turkey. All of which makes vintage marabou garments irresistible. A long pink robe with marabou edging was snapped up for $20 at the Winnetka Congregational Church's rummage sale even as we stood gaping at it. But the last time we looked, an ice blue jersey dance dress with a marabou-trimmed halter neckline was still available for $6 at the Winnetka Thrift Shop, 992 Green Bay Road in Winnetka (708-446-7787). The shop is open 10 to 5 Monday through Saturday. For a look at marabou as nature intended it, you can drop in on Guinevere and Lancelot at Lincoln Park Zoo. You'll find them in the birds of prey exhibit.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Cynthia Howe.