Put A Bird In It: The Business of Bird Pants

One day during the winter of 2007, it occurred to Missy Orge that the birds in her backyard could use some pants.
 
"They had these tiny little legs and these fat little bodies and I didn't know how they did it," says Orge, an Ann Arbor resident. "I said, 'I should make them some pants,' and then I did. It was kind of a joke at first but then it got bigger."
 
Since the first pair (designed for a robin), Orge has sold around 50 pants for various bird species through craft shows, her website and Etsy shop. Each pair is labeled and pinned down in a frame like a scientific artifact, in keeping with Orge's idea of making the pants "ornithologically correct." The pants are always accurately sized for the leg shape and length of the bird they're designed for, although the color schemes can be more stylish than practical.
 
"At first I was making them more flowered pants, more fashionable-type pants," she says. "When I got more scientific about it, it got more difficult because they don't translate well. A cardinal doesn't have red legs, but I thought they'd want red pants, so I went from there."
 
Although at first glance the idea of bird pants might seem a little unhinged, Orge says they're intended to be humorous. She says her day job as Food Gatherers' chief program officer is "practical," and she enjoys the "preposterousness" of creating bird pants (and the occasional article of clothing for other animals, like mouse coats and tarantula socks). But not everyone appreciates the joke. Orge says DIYpsi and Detroit Urban Craft Fair attendees have repeatedly cottoned to bird pants, while fair-goers at the Ann Arbor Art Fair have been less receptive. 
 
"There's great traffic and great exposure, but a lot of the people who come to [the Ann Arbor Art Fair], their idea of art is a painting or some thing made of metal," she says. "People who have a sense of humor and don't have this serious expectation of art kind of look at it and they get it and they start to laugh."
 
Laughing out loud was the reaction Julie Chickola had when she first discovered bird pants at DIYpsi. Chickola left the fair that day with a pair of gold lamé disco bird pants, and has since collected several others - including her favorite, a pair of great blue heron pants.
 
"They have an 18-inch inseam and are made of denim," Chickola says. "They still make me giggle every time I see them."
 
This disconnect from one audience and embrace by another illustrates the age-old divide between traditional craft institutions and arts and culture upstarts. Want to get a glimpse of what's next in the local art scene? Seek out the fairs and fests that welcome those who fashion bird pants and build robots from reclaimed appliances.  
 
And yet, despite Orge's outre cred, she made an influential new fan when she entered Martha Stewart's American Made contest earlier this year. She says her contest profile didn't receive many votes, but it did catch the eye of Martha Stewart Living blogger Alex Sanidad, who profiled Orge on the publication's blog.
 
"At first I thought, 'This can't be real,'" she says. "So I looked it up and [Sanidad's] name was in print, there in the magazine. People might have been humoring me before, but now that I'm on Martha Stewart people can say, 'Wow, you're really, really doing this.'"
 
Orge says traffic to her website and Etsy page has spiked since the story went live. She says she's now "firmly entrenched in bird pants land," developing her next addition to the collection: a kind of clothing collage, which may include mouse socks or a worm coat. Although she doesn't expect she'll ever make a living off of critter clothing, she says her fans' support has made it a legitimate hobby that pays for itself.
 
"People say, 'You should be on Project Runway,' and I say I can't make clothes for people," Orge says. "This is a lot more forgiving and you can make it up as it goes along. It makes me feel not invincible, but invincible in the extreme-small-animal-clothing world."

Patrick Dunn is an Ann Arbor-based freelance writer and regular contributor to Metromode and Concentrate.

All photos by Doug Coombe

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