A History of Fashion & Animals, from Penguin Sweaters to Monster Cats

You probably didn’t miss the recent story about the penguins in New Zealand who all got hand knit sweaters to wear. There’s not much in life that is cuter than a penguin in a sweater. The story was all the more heartwarming because the frantic knitting of tiny-penguin-shaped-sweaters by New Zealand citizens was sparked in reaction to the fact that the penguins had been the victims of a recent oil spill, and therefore served the dual purposes keeping them warm until they could be cleaned, and preventing them from ingesting poisonous oil.

Rescue + penguin + New Zealand + plus tiny-hand-knit-sweaters = win.





But when exactly did we start dressing animals?

Dogs are the animals we most often see wearing outfits. While a dog might actually need a sweater in the wintertime, sometimes the clothes are less than utilitarian.


Hot Dogs.


According to this article, “The history of small dog clothing goes back to the days when King Arthur ruled over Great Britain in 520 A.D. They used dogs in the military and in law enforcement, so they wore protective clothing to help keep them safe in an attack or from the environment.”


We want animals to be like us. We anthropomorphize them.We even imagine dogs engaging in all sorts of human activities when we aren’t around. They play poker and cards, and smoke cigars.



My friend Naoko Miki made costumes every year for her beloved cat, based on what animal it was for Japanese New Year. 2009 was the year of the cow:


by Naoko Miki.


In Japan there is a folklore wherein a cat can become a Bekeneko or “monster cat,” walking on its tail, flying, talking, shape-shifting and behaving in scary ways. There are a number of beliefs as to how a cat becomes a Bekeneko. Just as we project our positive human traits onto our animal friends, we also fear that they will possess our less desirable traits, but magnified.




We wear animals. Ladies with tiny dogs, I would argue, are sometimes accessorizing. In elementary school I was fond of wearing the school boa constrictor around my waist. Most notably, fur coats constitute literally wearing another animals skin. So yes, to the extent that we like to dress animals, we also like to dress like animals.



One of my earliest memories of animals in clothes was the Ringling Brother’s Barnum and Bailey Circus. My sister and I won a raffle, and got to ride the elephants once around the arena before the circus started. The elephants sharp neck hairs stuck through my little-girl-tights, and I cried and asked to get down, while my sister bravely took a lap around the ring.





The circus horses wear clothes.



They also get their hair done in ways that would make Bo Derek jealous.






Perhaps our favorite animal to dress in human clothes is the chimp. Primates with similar DNA afford us the best opportunity to imagine them as stand-ins for ourselves. It isn’t until someone is attacked that we are reminded that even the smallest differences in DNA are not to be dismissed as nothing.


Planet of the Apes.


“From medieval manuscripts to modern-day TV commercials, monkeys have served as satirical stand-ins for humans, mocking our fashions and foibles, and especially our tendency to “ape” our betters. The long-held view that man descended from simians, coupled with the monkey’s natural talent for mimicry, make it an ideal vehicle for parodying human behavior.

The Monkeys of Christophe Huet: Singeries in French Decorative Arts (Getty Publications, 2011) examines singeries–-comic scenes of monkeys (singes in French) imitating humans–-and other artistic representations of dressed monkeys, highlighting an unexpectedly rich resource for fashion historians. Monkeys appeared in European art from the Middle Ages onwards, but the first dressed monkeys are found in paintings and engravings of the late sixteenth century.” — Dr. Kimberly Chrisman-Campbell.


Simply put, we like to put clothes on animals. Even my Teddy bear, Franklin, is wearing a T-shirt.




About lixilamb

Artist, Author, Filmmaker.

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