A show at the Goldstein Museum of Design examines the use of feathers -- sexy, outrageous and sometimes vehemently political -- in Western fashion.

On one wall of the gallery is an image of burlesque queen Sally Rand. In the photo, from the 1934 film "Bolero," she's nude except for high heels, and has a pair of enormous ostrich feather fans draped strategically across her front. She's a bombshell, showing just the right amount of skin.

On the opposite wall, we get Sarah Jessica Parker. This photo, taken from the 2008 film "Sex and the City," catches her in an awkward wedding moment, a taxidermied bird of paradise pinned to her head. She's a bombshell, too, but the scene is comedic, the bird played for laughs like some glam rubber chicken.

Then off to the side, as if excluded from the party, is a portrait of John James Audubon. He's not a bombshell at all. And there's not a feather in sight.

Rand, Parker and Audubon -- these are the patron saints of the exhibition, titled "Flights of Fancy."

The show is a delightful, if brief, tour of the 150-year fascination the fashion world has had with plumage, from dainty turn-of-the-century millinery to a gorgeous 2009 wedding gown made entirely of peacock feathers, on loan from the local boutique of Filipina designer Monique Lhuillier.

Curators Jean McElvain and Angelina Jones sifted through the Goldstein's collection of apparel from the 19th and 20th centuries, pulling out pieces documenting the decadence of eras past. Among objects on view: a velvet hat from the 1930s, asymmetrical with an upswept brim, swarmed by more than 90 egret feathers, each one dyed black and curled into a stiff cowlick; a jumble of chicken feathers, dyed pink and shingled to make a Jazz-age flapper fan, and a pair of midcentury boudoir slippers, high-heeled and tufted with pink down.

Absurdly impractical

But for all the va-va-voom of the burlesque and boudoir wear, the feather can't quite fight off its campy connotation. As a material, it's preposterous, difficult to deal with and absurdly impractical to wear. A certain comedic garishness stalks the sex appeal of the pieces in the Goldstein show; even the most elegant item can smack of the feather tickler or the showgirl dressing room. It's the tug of war between Sally Rand and Sarah Jessica Parker.

This contradictory blend of honest glamour and ironic outrageousness is what fuels fascination with the feather.

"It is more of a costume thing, or shock value," says McElvain. But then she backpedals a bit. "But I do think that feathers in general evoke this kind of vulnerability, a kind of fragility."

One exhibition panel is dedicated to what feather-wearing women might be trying to convey. Are they acting submissive, asking to be hunted like an exotic prize? Are they peacocking, confidently displaying their mating prowess? Or is the fashion choice about conquest?

"I do think early on, when you had the fully reconstructed birds, it was more of this status and power symbol to have this bird on your head," McElvain says. "It looked more dominating. So it's much different than having a down stole."

And then there's the politics of animal cruelty and preservation. For "Flights of Fancy," the Goldstein partnered with the university's Raptor Center and the Bell Museum of Natural History to provide study skins and feather samples of species hunted for their feathers.

In the late 19th century, the craze for feathered millinery was so pervasive, an exhibition panel tells us, that "it is estimated that 5 million birds were killed every year in the name of fashion."

Egrets were hunted so aggressively they were eliminated entirely from the United States. The huia was hunted to extinction in New Zealand. Oftentimes, wings would be sliced off from live birds, which then would be left to bleed to death.

The Audubon Society, dedicated to the protection of wild birds, was founded by Forest and Stream editor George Bird Grinnell in 1886. The cruelty of the feather trade propelled its expansion across the country.

"People became aware of the fact that bird species were being hunted to extinction," says McElvain. A socialite named Harriet Hemenway founded Massachusetts' first chapter of the Audubon Society in Boston in 1896 as a response to the feathered-hat craze. She invited the city's most fashionable women to gatherings at her home, educating them on the evils of plume hunting. Hemenway's group even promoted "Audobonnets," stylish hats that did not make use of feathers.

Now, of course, international treaties enforce strict rules on the feather business. An evolution of wildlife protection legislation is presented in the show.

But the specter of cruelty hasn't wholly faded, McElvain says.

"It's just this interesting dichotomy of finding it beautiful and finding it horrible."

Gregory J. Scott writes regularly about art.