Plumes is quintessential Kuhn: a performer, shown in frontal view and wearing a slightly disillusioned expression, is placed against a simple background and depicted in bright, dissonant colors. The theme of a showgirl donning theatrical costume frequently recurred in Kuhn's mature work and was met with a great deal of success. Painted directly from the model, Mabel Benson, in December of 1931, Plumes was one of several canvases the artist created after a European trip that included a visit to the Prado in Madrid. The architectonic, three-dimensional form, the plain background, and the black-and-white contrasts with touches of red reveal the influence of Spanish artists such as Goya and Velázquez and certain Spanish-inspired works by Manet. Plumes, as does much of Kuhn's figurative work, conveys a feeling of contained energy. The contours of the figure seem to vibrate in contrast to the seemingly bored facial expression. Quiet and poised, she seems capable of movement at any moment. This tension is similar to that which Kuhn had admired in Archaic Greek sculpture. The artist created yet another sensation of tension in the painting by confining the solid, powerful figure and the plumes closely within the boundaries of the frame.
The painting was exhibited for the first time at the Marie Harriman Gallery in January 1932. The show was a success, and Plumes in particular was admired for the strength and simplicity of its balance, color, and composition. Duncan Phillips, who received an exhibition catalogue, was "especially impressed by 'Plumes'." Immediately after acquiring the painting, Phillips included it his 1932 Kuhn show. "The girl under the Plumes," he wrote
is thoroughly disillusioned and tired of it all. She seems to sag under her magnificent head-dress and to wonder perhaps why she ever left home. That head-dress is none the less a magnificent passage of painting. The feathers are the very essence of feathers and, as texture, they are the apotheosis of pigment.
Visual and expressive contrasts are conveyed in the discordant colors and disquieting, yet dignified mood of the painting, which expresses not only the feelings of the model, but also the artist's response to her.