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Answering the Call of the Wild

The Met Considers Why Animal Skin Is Always In

By Robin Givhan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 17, 2004; Page C02


There is a handbag on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art that is stitched out of jaguar fur and is embellished with the animal's head. It is part of the new exhibition "Wild: Fashion Untamed" in the Costume Institute. The purse is dated 1940 and looks like an oversize sporran, one of those pouches that Scottish Highlanders use to accessorize their kilts. "Wild," which runs through March 13, examines the relationship between humans and animals in matters of dress. And if there is one thing that can be discerned from inspecting the jaguar purse, it is that fashion affords humans a way of expressing their dominance over animals and nature.

The fur handbag is a stylized manifestation of the kill -- evidence of a hunting man's success, evidence of modern man's indifference or even cruelty. It suggests that humans, even in their most civilized, artful endeavors, are still connected to their most basic urges.

The timeless appeal of animal prints is examined in the Costume Institute show "Wild: Fashion Untamed." Designs that tapped into this primal instinct include '60s creations by Rudi Gernreich. (William Claxton - Fahey/Klein Gallery)

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The exhibition, curated by the Met's Andrew Bolton, is both compelling and disturbing. Lush sable stoles still have the animals' head and feet attached. Elaborate hats worthy of Ascot races are decorated with taxidermic birds, their tiny eyes glassy and bulging from their skulls. In the sterile environment of the glass cases, removed from the accouterments of glamour and the animal rights leafleting, it is possible to examine these accessories analytically -- to see their beauty as well as evidence of the violence that created them. Perhaps it is that very contradiction, that cruel beauty, that forms the attraction.

Why have fashion designers been so inspired by the animal kingdom? Year after year, animal prints -- from leopard spots to tiger stripes -- rise and fall in popularity, but essentially one kind or another is always in vogue. The same is true of fur. And in recent years it has been embraced by a younger generation of both men and women who, like those who came before, wear it as a sign of wealth, sexuality and power. The coquette has always worn feathers and the dominatrix is known for her leather. Why? The exhibition does not provide conclusive answers, but it asks a host of compelling questions.

The exhibition suggests that animal-inspired fashion speaks of racism, sexism and colonialism. It posits that the fashion industry has shown its greatest enthusiasm for fur, leopard spots, feathers and leather during times of sociopolitical instability. It is as though, during times of stress, designers look for solace by relying on their most fundamental instincts.

Wearing animal skins reflects the human desire for shelter and protection. Animal trophies are symbols of wealth and power. They not only represent man's power over animals -- or more broadly, over unpredictable dangers -- but also man's power over man.

Designers such as Ann Demeulemeester and Rick Owens, whose work is represented in "Wild," create shearling or fur coats that emphasize the origins of the materials by preserving their rough edges, the outline of individual pelts and much of the natural color. They create an almost prehistoric sensibility, in which the garment is not a luxury but a necessity for survival. They reference a simpler world in which wealth is measured by one's store of meat, not stock options.

The notion of the noble savage reflects a Western tendency to romanticize and exoticize other cultures. So often, when the fashion industry uses furs and animal prints to connote ethnicity, it is tapping into the "Tarzan" syndrome -- a cinematic vision of a Western man living amid the primitives.

Designers juxtapose formal Western styles with seemingly ravaged and raw materials or flourishes. A Jean Paul Gaultier ball gown evokes the idea of the noble savage not with the use of fur or skins but with elaborate Lesage beadwork, which creates the illusion of a leopard skin trailing down the center of the dress. Another Gaultier ball gown has white tulle bursting from beneath a fitted brown leather dress. The combination of these refined and coarse materials draws on society's subconscious connections of leather to wilderness dangers, the darkness of the jungle and animal sensuality.

Feathered dresses have always been associated with flighty coquettishness. There is a splendid Yves Saint Laurent dress from 1969 in the exhibit that is little more than an ethereal cloud of pale feathers. A woman who wraps a feather boa around her neck wants to convey a teasing lightheartedness. But why feathers? A silk scarf can be a device for flirtation, but it doesn't always have that effect. A silk scarf can go to the office. A marabou boa cannot.

The exhibition's text suggests that social connotations about feathers and plumage grow out of the "tremulous" nature of feathers and their ability to make clothes "dynamic." Feathers -- as worn by a showgirl, for instance -- speak to male fantasies of caged and kept women. They remind one of the delicacy and mystery of birds and, of course, of their beauty.

In its sweeping overview of animal-inspired attire, the exhibition looks at the use of synthetic fur as an ethical issue. It muses about the sexual provocation of leather. It considers the mythology connected to fashion's references to serpents and fish. And it reminds one that fashion is, as always, an eloquent expression of human nature.

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