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“Reptiles are Here for Good”1

Ambivalent Perceptions of Exotic Leather in European Fashion of the 1920s and 1930s
Birgit Haase

Résumés

Depuis plus de deux siècles, les peaux de reptiles sont des matériaux recherchés pour la réalisation d’accessoires de mode. Cet article revient sur l’histoire de l’utilisation de ces matériaux jusqu'à aujourd'hui. Il met l'accent sur les années 1920 et 1930, époque à laquelle les « cuirs exotiques » étaient particulièrement à la mode pour la réalisation de sacs, chaussures ou ceintures féminines. Permise par un certain nombre d’innovations techniques et par une conjoncture économique particulière, le développement de cette « mode reptile » se trouve à l’intersection de phénomènes culturels complexes au premier rang desquels l’orientalisme. La perception de ces matériaux, souvent vus comme « étranges » ou « différents », était profondément ambivalente, oscillant entre l'attirance et le rejet, entre l’appréciation et le dégoût, entre la séduction et l'indignation. Les accessoires fabriqués à partir de peaux de serpents, de crocodiles, de lézards et d'autres espèces exotiques sont entourés de la même ambivalence que celle qui entoure les animaux dont les peaux sont issues — une ambivalence façonnée par la mythologie et la superstition. D'un côté, ils sont attirants, tentants et séduisants, de l'autre, ils sont repoussants, offensants, voire menaçants. L'esthétique, l'éthique et le symbolisme se conjuguent pour façonner nos perceptions de ces animaux et de leurs peaux, hier comme aujourd'hui. Les discussions actuelles sur le sujet semblent dominées par des considérations éthiques contemporaines centrées sur la cruauté envers les animaux, la destruction de l'environnement et le colonialisme idéologique et économique. L’article montre que ces questions étaient en réalité déjà présentes dès les années 1920-1930. Malgré des décennies de débats et critiques, la fascination pour les peaux de reptiles comme pour l'exotisme, la rareté et la sensualité qui leur sont associés perdurent aujourd'hui, comme en témoignent les défilés de mode contemporains.
À l’aide d’une approche de la culture matérielle qui lie images, sources écrites et objets des collections, l'article explore de manière conjointe éthique et esthétique. Abordant les questions contemporaines de la durabilité, du bien-être animal et du colonialisme, l'article met en lumière des sujets tels que l'orientalisme, l'exotisme et les constructions de genre dans le domaine de l'histoire de la mode.

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  • 1 G. S. Saword, ‘Reptiles are Here for Good’. The Footwear Organiser & Shoe and Leather Trades Export (...)
  • 2 The Imperial Institute was established by royal charter from Queen Victoria in 1888 to hold and app (...)
  • 3 The Manchester Guardian (February 7, 1934).

1“Reptiles in Favour” — this is how The Manchester Guardian announced a Reptile Skin Exhibition, which took place in February and March of 1934 at the Imperial Institute in South Kensington, London.2 The correspondent stated this was “quite an appropriate place for it, for the Empire on which the sun never sets also includes vast areas over which some of the more extensive reptiles never cease crawling”.3

2India, West Africa, East Africa, Rhodesia, and Nigeria amongst others were cited as countries supplying sought-after snake, lizard and crocodile skins. It was stated, that while fashion had favoured reptile skins for many years:

  • 4 The Manchester Guardian (February 7, 1934).

[…] now it seems to be suggested that not only boots and bags but clothes may be made of leather from these creatures, as well as upholstery for furniture and motorcars. There seems a risk that the world’s reptiles will never be able to stand up to the commercial demand created by the unexpected favour in which they find themselves. They have survived being regarded with fear, horror, and revulsion; they may presently perish as a result of too much popularity. However, that point is under consideration; reptile farms, ‘experimental reserves’, and size limits under which various snakes and lizards should not be killed for leather have all been considered as possibilities that should be explored as much in the interest of commerce as zoology. For if commerce kills all the snakes, what will happen to the fashion for wearing their skins!4

3The above passage outlines significant aspects which the current article wishes to explore. In its discussion of the sources, uses and connotations of reptile skins in Western fashion, the article will show how materials that are often perceived as “foreign” or “different” are surrounded with deep-seated ambivalence — with aesthetic, symbolic as well as ethical considerations all playing a part. Attitudes oscillate between attraction and rejection, between allure and disgust, between seduction and indignation. Accessories made from the skins of snakes, crocodiles, lizards and other exotic species have been imbued with the ambivalence that surrounded the living animals — an ambivalence shaped by ancient mythology and superstition. On the one hand they are appealing, tempting and attractive, on the other they are repulsive, offensive or even menacing.

  • 5 A web search carried out in March 2020, returned results for fashionable accessories made of snake (...)

4Today’s discussions on the topic seem very much dominated by contemporary ethical considerations centred on the question of cruelty to animals, environmental destruction and ideological as well as economic colonialism. These aspects however were already present in earlier considerations, as the passage from the Manchester Guardian testifies. Despite long standing debates and criticisms, the enduring fascination for reptile skins and their associated exoticism, rarity and sensuality still exists today as we can see in contemporary fashion shows.5

5The fundamental complexity implied by the use of “exotic” materials was outlined by curator Andrew Bolton in the 2004 exhibition Wild: Fashion Untamed and its accompanying catalogue:

[...] designers have drawn on animal symbolism, with its folkloric, mythological, and magico-religious associations, to imbue their work with an arresting and sometimes alarming sensuality. Straddling the ideologies of nature and artifice, designers have sought to shape ideals of femininity that evoke and invoke the physical and symbolic characteristics of animals, ideals that have resonance in both the past and the present.

The history of fashion’s appropriation of animal skins, prints, and symbolism is also a history of society’s changing attitudes and ambivalences toward human-animal relations. Like fashion, which often serves as a cultural barometer, society oscillates between accepting and rejecting the dominant anthropocentric assumptions that have come to shape a hierarchical relation between humans and animals. […]

  • 6 Andrew Bolton, Wild: Fashion Untamed. New York: Yale University Press, 2004, p. 11.

Male to male, male to female, and female to female relations are all played out in the highly charged and contested territory of faunal apparel [, touching] on subjects as controversial as racism, sexism, colonialism, and environmentalism.6

6The present paper will analyse such deeply ambivalent perceptions as it focuses on the aesthetic, symbolic and ethical implications of the enduring fascination for fashionable accessories made of exotic reptile leathers, which experienced a peak in the 1920s and 1930s. The study is based on contemporary pictorial, textual, and material sources, primarily of English, French, and German provenance, with the main focus being on women's fashion accessories.

1. Reptile Leather: A Natural Material with a Long History

  • 7 For fundamental information on the subject see Hans Herfeld, Die tierische Haut (Bibliothek des Led (...)

7The term “reptile leather” describes tanned and variously prepared skins of lower vertebrates, in particular snakes, lizards and crocodiles. The number of species involved is high, especially when the skins of various fish, which are occasionally used as “substitute materials”, are also taken into account. The collective term “reptile leather” as well as the more comprehensive “exotic leather” will be used in the following article, with further specifications such as crocodile, snake, lizard or fish leather sometimes used when appropriate.7

  • 8 See Jean Perfettini, Le Galuchat. Un matérieau mystérieux, une technique oubliée. Paris: Éditions V (...)

8It is not entirely certain when reptile leather was first used for fashionable accessories in Europe. For centuries, indigenous cultures outside of Europe have found applications for a variety of reptile and fish skins. A special case is represented by ray- or shark-skin, whose distinctive, unmistakable appearance has been appreciated in Japan and Europe since the early modern period. Under the name “galuchat” in French and the misleading “shagreen” in English, it was processed into various fancy goods from the Rococo period onwards in Europe and experienced a renewed heyday in Art Deco design.8 Outside rayskin, and with a few exceptions dating from the nineteenth century, the references to the use of aquatic or reptile skins in fashion remain elusive until the first decades of the twentieth century. A marked increase in mentions of reptile leather is noticeable in the 1920s and 1930s however. Detailed discussions of the origin of hides and of ways to differentiate between various kinds of reptile leathers start appearing in newspapers, where questions of trade and improvements in processing techniques are also sometimes discussed. In July 1933, the British trade journal The Footwear Organiser summarised the situation from the point of view of the United Kingdom:

Lizard skins of Java and South American origin were sold in moderate quantities about 25 years ago, but a regular industry developed only in 1926. At this time skins were sold at four or five times to-day’s values. […] Originally supplies came principally from Java and the neighbouring islands and British India. Subsequently Mexico and Brazil were tapped as sources of supply, the skins coming from those countries being primarily iguanas and tejus, the first shipments of which were sold at very fancy prices.

Gradually fresh sources of supply have been developed and, during the last few years, quantities have been obtained that not only would not have been credited in the early stages, but that are greatly in excess of what has been considered possible by zoological authorities. The collection of reptile skins has been properly organised in British India, Ceylon, Dutch East Indies, Java, Sumatra, Borneo, Siam, Brazil and the Philippine Islands. […]

  • 9 Harry K. Wigzell, ‘Influence of Reptiles in Fashion Shoes’. The Footwear Organiser (July 1933, Supp (...)

From Nigeria extremely large shipments are made of monitor lizards […]. From Africa come also large quantities of pythons, both lizards and pythons being very often native tanned, but sometimes shipped also in the raw condition. 9

  • 10 See Jonathan Faiers, Fur — A Sensitive Story. New Haven & London: Yale University Press, 2020, p. 4 (...)
  • 11 A sound three-part study of African colonial policy and imperial violence in its complex ethical-mo (...)

9As this comment reveals, the development was closely linked to the late forms of European colonialism, especially the so-called “Scramble for Africa” between c.1880 and 1914. The division of the Black Continent between the imperial colonial powers of Europe, including Great Britain, France, Germany and Belgium, served political and economic interests. Among the precious raw materials that were imported to Europe from the oppressed and exploited territories were ivory, woods and the like, as well as exotic furs and hides, which were often obtained under conditions that were degrading to indigenous people and animals.10 From Africa came skins of various crocodile and monitor species, alongside those of the highly prized python snakes. These goods not only brought wealth to European colonial powers, but also provided material and cultural inspiration for the arts and fashion, especially at the time of Art Nouveau and Art Deco.11

  • 12 See Edwina Ehrman, Fashioned from Nature (exh. cat. Victoria and Albert Museum). London: V&A Publis (...)

10Particularly in the 1920s and 1930s, correspondents reported on the steadily growing import of reptile leather from Africa, as well as from South America and Asia. In the reports, criticism of colonialism as a system of oppression and exploitation was hardly present, being always secondary to the enthusiasm created by these exotic goods flowing into Europe. However, some authors addressed the decimation of wildlife populations and the damage to ecosystems in the countries of origin in association with the reptile leather boom.12 The introduction of hunting restrictions, the establishment of breeding farms and the development of imitation leather were also sometimes mentioned as possible alternatives in the search for more humane and environmentally-friendly alternatives.

  • 13 Karlheinz Fuchs, Die Krokodilhaut — Ein wichtiger Merkmalträger bei der Identifizierung von Krokodi (...)
  • 14 ‘Shoe and Leather Fair — Fashions for Women’. The Times (London), No. 44894 (October 5, 1926).
  • 15 ‘The London Shoe and Leather Fair — Retrospective Review of the Exhibits’. The Times Trade and Engi (...)

11Reptile leather was imitated virtually from the start of its use in fashion with techniques such as embossing, pressing and printing cheaper leather to look like snake, lizard or crocodile skin.13 In 1926, The Times reported: “A curious development of the fashion for reptiles is the immediate appearance of the imitation skin”.14 Four years later the same newspaper stated: “The rapid strides made in recent years in the reproduction of reptile grains on other leathers have encouraged a wider use of printed skins, as shoe manufacturers have been able to produce an attractive and hard-wearing shoe at a lower cost than the genuine reptile shoe”.15 As can be seen from these statements, economic considerations initially prevailed, as cost savings in material procurement and production led to profits or could be passed on to consumers in the form of reduced sales prices. Questions of species protection, animal ethics and sustainability, which are increasingly in focus today, often played a comparatively rather subordinate role in the specialist and daily press of the 1920s and 1930s.

  • 16 See for instance the “Society for the Protection of Birds” (1891) in Great Britain, the “Bund für V (...)
  • 17 J. Faiers, Fur, p. 35.
  • 18 See http://www.irv-ra.de/herkunftsnachweis/ [last accessed on 12/08/2021].

12Institutionalized nature and animal conservation dates back to the time around 1900, when opulent trimmings of feathers or even whole taxidermied birds ornamented ladies' hats. This craze resulted in a real threat to biodiversity and promoted the founding of early organizations for the protection of birds.16 However, as Jonathan Faiers notes, “after the initial explosion of interest in the welfare of animals in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the animal rights movement progressed slowly”.17 Only since 1973-75 has the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES, also known as the Washington Convention) been in place as a multilateral treaty protecting endangered plants and animals. Its aim is to ensure that international trade in specimens of wild animals and plants does not threaten the survival of the species in the wild. It defines varying degrees of protection for more than thirty-five thousand species of animals and plants, including many kinds of reptiles. In Germany, the Internationale Reptillederverband e. V. (IRV) has strived to guarantee skins comply with the provisions of the Washington Convention, using a specific labelling and code number in order to ensure complete proof of origin for exotic skins.18

  • 19 See Julia Long, ‘Portable Pets: Live and Apparently Live Animals in Fashion, 1880-1925’. Costume — (...)
  • 20 Comparable in this respect appear, for example, fur stoles (tippets) and muffs that were a feature (...)

13Reactions to protection measures on the part of the fashion industry has remained muted or even negative. Despite warnings and bans regarding any commercial trade in endangered species products, exotic skins have continued to enter the market steadily throughout the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. In addition, consumers’ reservations have often been limited to those trends that threatened all too obviously lovely birds or cute fur-bearing animals.19 Reptiles have triggered comparatively less public sympathy and pleas for their protection have often gone unheard. Even those handbags that appear from time to time in European fashion collections where the complete skin of an animal has been used — including head, tail and paws — or those that mimick this effect have hardly seemed to arouse any significant outcry, despite their often unsettling effect.20 (Fig. 1)

Fig. 1: Handbag made of monitor lizard skin, c. 1950s. Leather, glass, brass, suede lining; height (without handle): 17 cm, width: 30 cm, depth: 9 cm

Fig. 1: Handbag made of monitor lizard skin, c. 1950s. Leather, glass, brass, suede lining; height (without handle): 17 cm, width: 30 cm, depth: 9 cm

Private collection, Hamburg, Germany

© Birgit Haase

  • 21 D. L. Silverman, ‘Art Nouveau, Art of Darkness’, Part I, p. 139.
  • 22 Julia V. Emberley, Venus and Furs. The Cultural Politics of Furs. London: I. B. Tauris, 1997, p. 17 (...)

14In such an object, it is as if the living creature had lost its claim to human compassion by being turned into a fashionable accessory. The animal skin seems to have mutated into a kind of luxury trophy celebrating man's claim to dominance over the animal kingdom while it also manifests “a displaced encounter with a distant but encroaching Imperial violence”.21 Julia V. Emberly has identified comparable chauvinistic influences in fur wearing. Based on her differentiated analysis of “The Cultural Politics of Fur”, she states: “I read the current contest over fur, fur-bearing animals, and fur fashion as evoking, right down to its soft and sensuous fibers, the history of class, exploitation, imperialism, and the oppression of women”.22 Emberly describes the emblematic “figure of the fur-clad [European] woman”, who displays wealth and femininity in a patriarchal society by wearing precious exotic materials. The image appears quite similar to that of the wearer of accessories made of no less luxurious reptile skins. The latter combine exotic charm and sensuality with complex notions of power and violence — aspects that underpin the relationship between humans and animals but also between men and women.

  • 23 In recent years, Mark Auliya, a biologist working at the “Helmholtz Zentrum für Umweltforschung” in (...)
  • 24 See for instance PETA, ‘Crocodiles Cut Open and Skinned in Vietnam for Handbags’. https://www.peta. (...)

15Only very recently have a wider awareness of and sensitiveness to the cruel downsides of reptile fashions started to appear.23 This development is seemingly supported by media-effective NGO campaigns and reports, such as those of the group PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals), ProWildlife and other organizations. These organizations denounce unbearable cruelty to animals and environmental crimes, using disturbing pictures and creating direct references to the fashionable products of internationally famous luxury groups.24

  • 25 E.g. Jennifer Hinz, ‘Viele der Alternativen zu Leder schaden eher’. Welt online (July 4, 2017), htt (...)
  • 26 See IUCN Species Survival Commission, ‘Is banning exotic leather bad for reptiles?’. Crossroads Blo (...)
  • 27 Jackie Mellon, ‘Is fish skin the new frontier for eco-friendly fashion?’ (November 20, 2019). https (...)
  • 28 An example is a gown made of fish leather for a Nanai woman that comes from Amur, Siberia and dates (...)

16Today, the discussion about vegan alternatives to real leather has reached a wider public, but at the same time there has been widespread recognition that there are no “simple solutions”.25 For example the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) recommends a sustainable, publicly controlled trade in exotic skins that follows the CITES provisions, instead of its overall ban.26 Others promote the use of fish skins as an alternative to reptile hides.27 Fish leather designates the tanned skins of various fish species, which accrue as a by-product or waste of the food industry. The skins of species such as salmon, cod, carp, catfish, trout among others, are usually very thin, but mostly tearproof, due to the particular arrangement of fibres across the grain. Each displays a unique look with an often marked scaly structure. As a result they are frequently processed for the luxury sector. As mentioned before, there are historical precursors to this trend, not least among indigenous people. Particularly arctic ethnicities, living near rivers or on coastal areas, for example in Alaska, Canada, Siberia or Iceland, have traditionally extracted fish leather for clothing.28

  • 29 29 See Anne Sudrow, Der Schuh im Nationalsozialismus. Eine Produktgeschichte im deutsch-britisch-am (...)
  • 30 30 “Immerhin muß Fischleder einstweilen weniger als Gebrauchs- denn als Luxusleder, besser ausgedrü (...)
  • 31 31 The “Frankfurter Modeamt” (Fashion Office of the City of Frankfurt) was founded in 1933. At the (...)

17An example from more recent Western history, closely linked to the reptile leather fashion of the 1930s, is the German Nazi policy of “autarky” with its ideologically and economically motivated quest of alternatives to imported exotic skins of crocodiles, snakes and lizards. Already after 1937, the German press increasingly reported on experiments of tanning various domestic fish skins. High expectations were placed on the material, particularly after the beginning of the war and the related material shortages.29 In November 1940 a pro-government author extensively informed the public in connection with the prolonged Four-Year-Plan about “Fish leather and its economic importance”. He predicted a brilliant future for the substitute material, which combined “utmost durability with elegant appearance”; at the same time, he conceded: “Nevertheless, for the time being, fish leather must be considered and evaluated less as a utility leather than as a luxury leather, or better said, as a leather of fashionable character”.30 Consequently, with an official mandate the municipal “Frankfurter Modeamt” undertook designing collections of clothes and accessories from salmon skins.31 However, lasting use of fish skins for fashionable purposes was thwarted not only by a whole string of negative processing properties and adverse wear qualities, but also by taste reservations. Although the material had a certain aesthetic charm, it still lacked the luxurious, exotic and erotic symbolic associations that made reptile leathers especially desirable. Also, fish skins often had the stigma of being a comparatively cheap substitute, which, like imitation leather, did little to reduce the demand for the rare genuine reptile skins. It remains an open question if current producers and consumers of fish leather will succeed in reversing this view and contribute to minimizing the use of reptile leathers for fashionable purposes.

2. Reptile Leather: A Highly Symbolic Material with Aesthetic Appeal

  • 32 32 Sept ans à peine se sont écoulés depuis le début de l’ère reptilienne”, La Dépêche coloniale (P (...)

18In the early twentieth century, ecological considerations did not play as significant a role in discourses as they might do today. Rather the continued colonial exploitation of those areas “east of Europe”, which had been defined as the “Orient” since the age of Enlightenment, as well as the rapid development of the leather industry in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, fostered a substantial increase of reptile leather fashions in the West. This is evidenced by the growing number of specialized publications on processing and trade. In 1930, La Dépêche coloniale (Paris) noted, “Only seven years have passed since the beginning of the ‘reptilian era’” and cited the appealing appearance of the various types of leather, which were enhanced by new tanning processes and dyeing in every conceivable shade, as the main reason for their increasing popularity.32 Three years later, a similar but more detailed assessment of the development from a different national perspective was published in the British trade journal The Footwear Organiser:

During recent years a complete change has taken place in variety of materials for women’s shoes. This change is revolutionary; and it is due solely to the availability of reptile skins in such quantities and variety.

In the early days, manufacturers doubted both the possibility of using reptile leather, and the likelihood of a market for reptile shoes. This doubt was not without reason. Such shoes would be so entirely different from what had been; and, moreover, reptile skins were usually poorly tanned and finished.

Gradually, however, the change took place. The Crocodile was perhaps the first reptile to be used in quantity. Then followed Karungs and the Indian and Java Lizards. Enterprising manufacturers and designers began to see possibilities in these new leathers. Tanners and dressers became more proficient in dealing with these unusual pelts. Shippers and collectors in all parts of the world saw the likelihood of a market. Beautiful markings and designs became apparent on skins when they were properly dressed, and the public was attracted by the shoes.

Thus a new fashion in footwear was created. To-day, Fashion Shoes are made from reptile skins which come from every corner of the earth – crocodiles, snakes and lizards in great variety, pythons from India, Java and Africa. Varieties and classes are too great to enumerate, and additions are continually being made.

  • 33 33 W. P. Tebilco: Charles Tait & Co. Ltd, ‘Reptiles and Fashion Shoes’. The Footwear Organiser & Sh (...)

Most reptiles, and in particular lizards and snake-skins, with this colouring, give the Shoe Manufacturer great scope in design and offer the wearer an almost unlimited choice of footwear.33

  • 34 34 Edwina Ehrman mentions toxic chromium waste and Alison Matthews David names various highly toxic (...)

19Chrome tanning such as was used in the 1930s was well suited for finishing reptile leathers because of its speed and ability to produce supple and flexible skins; and aniline dyes, instead of the pigment dyes previously used, simplified the dyeing process and gave reptile leathers a bright colour spectrum. In view of such advantages, the environmental hazards of the toxic substances released during such finishing and refining processes were mostly ignored, as in previous decades.34

  • 35 35 A report on the “Hamburg Boot and Shoe Market” by the then US consul in April 1927, for example, (...)
  • 36 36 E. M. Curtis, ‘Will Reptile Skins Remain in Fashion?’. The Footwear Organiser (March 1932), p. 1 (...)

20Material culture from the early twentieth century also bears witness to the “reptile era”. Apart from a few exceptions, early reptile leather items preserved in international collections date from the 1920s, and the majority from the 1930s. These examples — bags, shoes, belts and other fashionable accessories — testify to the association of such leather goods to luxury. Besides the practical appeal of the durability of such products, contemporary press reports and advertisements mostly emphasized aesthetics. Due to rarity and costliness, the distinctive natural product imported from distant countries reached a higher price than “normal” leather — a fact that lent an aura of exclusiveness and luxury to reptile skins.35 In March 1932 The Footwear Organiser stated that “The wide variety of markings and colours available in reptile skins, and the way those markings and colours lend themselves to attractive designs [...], has played a large part in maintaining the prolonged popularity of reptile skins as fashion [...] materials”.36

  • 37 37 Linda O’Keeffe, Shoes — A Celebration of Pumps, Sandals, Slippers & More. New York: Workman Publ (...)
  • 38 38 Pierre Legrain: Cigarette Case, c. 1925. Snake skin, dyed and tooled leather, gold leaf, 7,9 x 6 (...)

21There is widespread agreement that the fashion for shortened hems in the 1920s stimulated demand for decorative ladies’ footwear. Dresses with now mostly slim and simple silhouettes were often combined with decorative accessories like elegant belts and bags. In addition, the craze for the use of make-up and women taking up cigarette smoking promoted the spread of corresponding exclusively designed accessories such as powder compacts, cigarette cases, lighters, etc. This prompted collaborations between celebrated couturiers and designers of shoes and other fashionable accessories of luxury leather. A well-known example is the collaboration of Paul Poiret and André Perugia, who assured his position as “grand bottier des stars” during the 1920s and was renowned for using exquisite materials like “glossy snake skin and pearl-coloured lizard skin”.37 French designer Pierre Legrain worked as a draftsman for the couturier Jacques Doucet and the company Louis Vuitton amongst others. The collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York has a cigarette case of snake skin, dyed and worked with gold leaf by Legrain.38 It is unknown where the snakeskin came from. With its aesthetics that combines art deco and exotic influences, such an object however neatly encapsulates multi-layered processes of material and cultural appropriation that characterized the colonialism of the period.

  • 39 39 Le commerce nourrit l’attrait pour les produits exotique. […] La connotation orientale n’est pa (...)
  • 40 40 See Martin H. Geyer and Eckhard Hellmuth, ‘Einleitung — „Konsum konstruiert die Welt“‘, in Exoti (...)
  • 41 41 Fusion Fashion. Culture Beyond Orientalism and Occidentalism, edited by Gertrud Lehnert and Gabr (...)
  • 42 42 M. H. Geyer and E. Hellmut, ‘Einleitung’, p. XXI. For a more intensive discussion of different a (...)

22European designers liked to draw inspiration from those regions whose vague description as “the Orient” opened up spaces for imaginative interpretation. Trade with the Near, Middle and Far East plus the cultural influence which came along with it, had a long tradition in the West, especially in the textile and dress sectors. As explained above, from the later nineteenth century onwards, the “Scramble for Africa” offered additional economic opportunities and aesthetic perspectives to European countries. “Trade feeds the appeal of exotic products”, states Vincent Cochet, referring to a long-lasting European fondness for leopard patterns, adding: “The oriental connotation is not far from that of barbarism”.39 The reception of the foreign “Other” in the West seems to have been characterized by fascinosum and tremendum from the outset, by ambivalent feelings wavering between attraction and fear.40 As Gertrud Lehnert and Gabriele Mentges note, “The exotic was feared and desired at the same time and soon incarnated the fantastic otherness par excellence”.41 Quite often the West countered the supposed threat by a kind of “estrangement of otherness” (“Entfremdung des Fremden”), which in a way assimilated “the Other”.42 At the same time, the Orient was imagined as a kind of “lost paradise”, offering exciting alternatives to Western conventional ethics and moral standards. The carefully staged escapism of “the Orient” expressed the West’s idealized longing for otherness.

  • 43 43 Carla Jones and Ann Marie Leshkowich, ‘Introduction: The Globalization of Asian Dress: Re-Orient (...)
  • 44 44 C. Jones and A. M. Leshkowich, ‘Introduction’, p. 5f.

23Similar mechanisms are noted by Anne Marie Leshkowich and Clara Jones for more recent times. They assert that: “During the 1990s, several prominent und stereotypical images of Asia coexisted comfortably in the cultural landscape of Europe and North America. In terms of style, we saw the proliferation of trendy ‘Oriental’ lifestyle elements described in romantic prose designed to conjure up visions of a timeless, exotic, spiritual, and mysterious land”.43 Focusing on orientalism in fashion, the authors refer to the enduring practice of “neutralizing” an ominous Orient by defining it “as fundamentally Other, feminine, and perpetually inferior to the West in ways that supported colonial domination”.44 The process which Leshkowich and Jones have identified for the postmodern era was already at work earlier.

  • 45 45 Debora L. Silverman examined these intricate connections in detail using the example of “Belgian (...)

24In the early part of the twentieth century, the relationship between the West and the Orient changed, not least under the influence of colonialism, especially in the context of the late nineteenth-century “Scramble for Africa”.45 The sheer wealth of exotic goods, including reptile leather, which arrived in Europe in large quantities from the colonies, was not without effect on artistic and public perception. Interest in exotic cultures, which culminated with such art movements as cubism and fauvism, was intensified by press reports of the Ballets Russes in 1909 or the spectacular discovery of the tomb of Tutankhamun in 1922. Such events fuelled popular culture.

  • 46 46 A. Geczy, Fashion and Orientalism, p. 6.
  • 47 47 Michelle Tolini Finamore, ‘Fashioning the Colonial at the Paris Expositions, 1925 and 1931’. Fas (...)

25Adam Geczy has coined the term “transorientalism” for what was then a widespread, freely associative, self-referential and eclectic approach to oriental or (more generally) exotic influences in the arts.46 According to Geczy, the opulence attributed to oriental taste offered a welcome alternative to the rather simple ladies’ fashions of the times. Michelle Tolini Finamore has forged the French term colonial moderne to refer to the taste for the exotic which “subsumed the exotic ‘Other’ into a popular decorative style that was a source of inspiration for […] fashion, accessories, and textiles that were actively promoted in both French and American fashion magazines”.47 Like Leshkowich and Jones, she understands this strategy as continuing Western hegemonic aspirations that are only superficially disguised as empathy for the foreign. According to Tolini Finamore the “coloniale modern was motivated by power politics and economics and legitimized culturally. She argues that it was the focus of the world exhibitions in the nineteenth century and found its culmination in 1925 with the Exposition internationale des arts décoratifs et industriels modernes and in 1931 with the Exposition coloniale internationale in Paris.

  • 48 48 ‘The Uses of Snake Skin — Imperial Institute Exhibition’. The Times, no. 46674 (February 9, 1934 (...)

26The aforementioned, but now lesser known Reptile Skin Exhibition, held at the Imperial Institute in South Kensington in spring 1934, should be seen in this context. At that time the London Times stated that “The display is intended to make the public ‘reptile conscious’ so that they may demand more and more reptiles from within the Empire”.48 Obviously, the rationale was dominated by clear economic interests — after all, the United Kingdom with its colonies was the prime supplier of reptile leather for the whole of Europe.

27Beyond that, what counted in fashion was the aesthetic and symbolic surplus of reptile skins. Their exotic, extravagant and luxurious impact was further supported by an extremely ambivalent animal symbolism. The perception of reptiles seems to have been determined by both fascination and fear in most cultures since time immemorial. Rich and deeply ambivalent symbolism has been associated with crocodiles and especially snakes whereby they appear as both alien and connected to humankind. This ambiguity also seems to largely transfer to the mostly female wearers of reptile leather clothing and accessories.

3. Reptiles in Art: The Serpent and the Image of the “Femme Fatale”

  • 49 49 Elyssa Da Cruz, ‘Man-Eater’, in A. Bolton, Wild: Fashion Untamed, p. 144-175. See also Sofia Gno (...)

28It is in this context that Elyssa Da Cruz has referred to the complex, often sexually determined and erotically charged stereotypes associated with fashionable use of wild animal skins in the West. Clothing or accessories made of exotic leather serve to characterize the wearer as a “femme fatale” — a figure of the seductress both equally alluring and dangerous, which has emanated mainly from the male imagination.49 The snake has a special place in this construction. According to the Book of Genesis in the Old Testament, it was a serpent which deceived Eve into eating fruit from the forbidden tree of knowledge. The Fall resulted in humankind’s banishment from the Garden of Eden and men and women experiencing shame at being naked; in Judeo-Christian culture, this moment can be understood as the origin of the sinful phenomenon of fashion.

  • 50 50 Madame Yevonde: Mrs Edward Mayer, as Medusa, 1935. Photographie (Vivexprint). Private collection (...)

29Iconographically speaking, the collusion between woman and serpent, both intriguing and disastrous, had been archetypically embodied in figures like Medusa, the cruel monster with flowing ringlets of hissing snakes, whose stare turned man into stone. Since ancient times, imagery has reiterated this connection between woman and snake. In 1935, for example, the British society photographer Madame Yevonde resorted to it for her portrait of Mrs. Edward Meyer, as Medusa to characterize her model as seductive and dangerous.50

  • 51 51 John Collier: Lilith, 1887. Oil on canvas, 200 x 104 cm. Southport, Atkinson Art Gallery. See Al (...)
  • 52 52 Herbert James Draper: Lamia, 1909. Oil on canvas, 127 x 69 cm. Private collection.

30In paintings and novels since the late nineteenth century, the image of the bewitching, beautiful, intellectually independent and cruel woman was also personified by Lilith. According to Jewish tradition, she was exiled from the Garden of Eden for refusing to remain Adam’s inferior. In 1887, the academically-trained British painter John Collier depicted Lilith as a flawless nude, in deep intimacy with the snake, the guise of which she would adopt, to return to the Garden of Eden and cause havoc.51 This subject gave the artist an opportunity to emphasize the delicateness of subtle, milky feminine skin in exciting contrast to the mottled, slimy surface of the winding snake. Another motif for artistic representation of the fatal closeness between a beautiful, though cruel woman and a snake was Lamia. In ancient Greek mythology, she was the queen of Libya and became a child-eating demon with a serpent’s tail. In 1909, British painter Herbert James Draper depicted her as a beautiful semi-nude woman, absorbed in ruminant dialogue with a snake, whose shed skin winds around her hips.52 These and other examples from the belle époque illustrate that female potency, which was always seen as both sexual and dangerous at the same time, was symbolized by proximity to the insidious snake. With a decidedly fashionable connotation, an exquisite illustration from the Gazette du Bon Ton of February 1913 takes up the theme by presenting a highly elegant woman eating apples costumed as a snake. The image is based on a design by renowned couturier Redfern. (Fig. 2)

Fig. 2: Charles Martin, De la Pomme aux Lèvres. Travesti de Redfern, February 1913. Line etching and pochoir on paper, 24,5 x 19 cm. Illustration from Gazette du Bon Ton, no. 4 (February 1913), Pl.V

Fig. 2: Charles Martin, De la Pomme aux Lèvres. Travesti de Redfern, February 1913. Line etching and pochoir on paper, 24,5 x 19 cm. Illustration from Gazette du Bon Ton, no. 4 (February 1913), Pl.V

Hamburg, Museum für Kunst und Gewerbe, inv. EG2017.4.8

  • 53 53 Theda Bara in “Cleopatra”, 1917. Film still, advertising photography. See A. Geczy, Fashion and (...)

31In the first decades of the twentieth century the image of the diabolical “femme fatale” — now often called a “vamp” —, being on good terms with snakes, experienced a particularly wide reaching effect in the modern mass medium of the movies. In 1917, the revealing costumes of silent picture star Theda Bara in the movie Cleopatra attracted great media attention by satisfying current associations of the erotic and exotic.53

  • 54 54 Sigmund Reiss, ‘Der Traum vom Schuhladen, mit Frühjahrsmodellen der Firma Reiss, Berlin, Schills (...)
  • 55 55 “Die moderne Frau Eva war es, die die Schlange neuerdings zu einem Nutztier in gewissem Sinne ge (...)

32Outside of stage and screen, actresses figured as fashionable trend-setters too. Of course, illustrated magazines covered glamorous costumes, but at the same time they didn't lose sight of the reality of their readers’ lives. Shoes and other accessories made of reptile leather conveniently transferred a touch of femme fatale to everyday women of fashion. An illustrated article from the Berlin magazine Revue des Monats of 1928 promoted the shoes of the local company Reiss, modelled on then popular movie stars. The captions read “sport shoes of lizard skin after Lilian Weiß” and “snake skin court shoes favoured by Raquel Torres”.54 Here, the image of the femme fatale seems to be transformed to that of a modern “New Woman”, both self-confident and seductive. Such female role models proved effective — in January 1934 the German Kölnische Zeitung noted: “It was the modern woman Eve who recently turned the snake into a farm animal in a certain sense. More and more new fashion items made of snakeskin have appeared on the market in the last few years”.55 In July 1933, The Footwear Organiser put it this way:

  • 56 56 Harry K. Wigzell, ‘Influence of Reptiles in Fashion Shoes’. The Footwear Organiser & Shoe and Le (...)

According to repute, Eve was the first lady to succumb to the attractions of the reptile, an incident of some importance in history immediately succeeded by the fall of man. [...] It is only too true, perhaps, that in this changing world there is nothing new under the sun, yet it has been left to the skill of the reptile tanner of to-day, the craftsmanship of makers of shoes and bags, and the discriminating taste of ladies of fashion in modern times, to discover the real beauty and possibilities of reptile leathers.56

  • 57 57 See Birgit Haase, ‘“Walking in Crocodile” Modische Damenschuhe aus Reptilleder’, in Über Schuhe. (...)

33It was the specific combination of luxury, exoticism and eroticism which ensured a revival of the reptile leather fashion in the post-war period. From the end of the 1940s such accessories were advertised again, using exclusivity and distinctiveness as well as durability and versatility in order to justify the somewhat higher prices compared to items made of smooth leather.57 In the 1950s it was above all the combination of reptile leather ladies’ shoes with matching bags and suitable accessories (e.g. hand mirror, pocket comb, purse, pillbox etc.), which was estimated as a prime status symbol. (Fig. 3)

Fig. 3: Handbag made of python skin with matching accessories, c. early 1950s. Python skin, brass, suede lining; height (without handle): 11 cm, width: 23 cm, depth: 4/9,5 cm

Fig. 3: Handbag made of python skin with matching accessories, c. early 1950s. Python skin, brass, suede lining; height (without handle): 11 cm, width: 23 cm, depth: 4/9,5 cm

Private collection, Hamburg, Germany

© Birgit Haase

  • 58 58 Only recently a rethink seems to emerge in some parts of the luxury branch; see N. Bailey-Cooper (...)

34In the late 1960s and in the 1970s the enthusiasm for shoes (now often with platform soles), belts or shoulder bags made of reptile skins witnessed another peak, in the context of a longing for India and the Orient at a time when colonial empires were breaking up. The Washington Convention, which came into force at the same time, did not change the situation markedly. Today’s situation seems not that different. Notwithstanding many calls for moderation, fashionable accessories of exotic leathers are still in high demand, particularly in the luxury sector.58

4.Conclusion

  • 59 59 G. S. Saword, ‘Reptiles are Here for Good’. The Footwear Organiser & Shoe and Leather Trades Exp (...)

35“Reptiles are here for good”. 59There seemed to be little doubt about that in July 1931, a time when reptile leather accessories had taken the fashion world by storm.

36The present analysis has attempted to contextualise this fashion phenomenon, to understand its historical foundations as well as its often ambivalent ideological implications in the 1920s and 1930s and beyond. It has explored the deep conflicts and contradictions of reptile leather fashion poised between attraction and revulsion, between exoticism and eroticism, between otherness and identity. In the process it has shown how the conflicting perceptions of the living animals had been transferred to their skins and it has shed light on the complex ethical and ideological debates their use has raised in terms of such issues as gender, animal welfare, or colonialism.

  • 60 60 A. Bolton, Wild: Fashion Untamed, p. 11.

37According to Andrew Bolton, the fondness for exotic skins in fashionable accessories and fancy goods should be seen in a wider social historical context. He writes “It is perhaps not coincidental […] that animal skins, prints, and symbolism appear in fashion at times of sociopolitical turmoil. They dominated the fashion landscape in the 1930s, the 1960s, and the 1980s, as they do today, all periods displaying an acute awareness of race, class, and gender relations as well as heightened sensitivity toward imperialist expansion”.60 Thus, reptile leather fashion in its complex intertwined associations may be said to express social upheavals seismographically, as it were. This makes the fondness for snake, lizard and crocodile leather in the turbulent 1920s and 1930s all the more understandable. And it may also partly explain why, despite highly controversial and mostly negative ethical connotations, the aesthetic and symbolic appeal of reptile leather accessories persists, leading to regular rediscoveries and rebirths in fashion.

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Notes

1 G. S. Saword, ‘Reptiles are Here for Good’. The Footwear Organiser & Shoe and Leather Trades Export Journal (July 1931), p. 35.

2 The Imperial Institute was established by royal charter from Queen Victoria in 1888 to hold and apply the property and assets arising from the contributions given almost exclusively by private citizens from across the Empire in a nationwide collection. It had defined purposes whose primary emphasis was the exhibition of collections showcasing the various countries' industrial development and commercial products and which included industrial intelligence gathering and dissemination, the promotion of technical and commercial education, and the furthering of colonization.

3 The Manchester Guardian (February 7, 1934).

4 The Manchester Guardian (February 7, 1934).

5 A web search carried out in March 2020, returned results for fashionable accessories made of snake (especially python) and crocodile being available in the collections of Bottega Veneta, Gucci, Louis Vuitton and other luxury brands.

6 Andrew Bolton, Wild: Fashion Untamed. New York: Yale University Press, 2004, p. 11.

7 For fundamental information on the subject see Hans Herfeld, Die tierische Haut (Bibliothek des Leders, vol.1). Frankfurt am Main: Umschau Verlag, 1990; Karlheinz Fuchs, Manuel Fuchs, Leo Derichs, Faszination Leder. Alltägliches und Exotisches unter der Lupe. Frankfurt am Main: Edition Chimaira, 2008; Anne-Laure Quilleriet, Cuir. Paris: Assouline, 2004; Leder. Welt. Geschichte. 100 Jahre Deutsches Ledermuseum (1917-2017), edited by Inez Florschütz (exh. cat, Deutsches Ledermuseum, Offenbach am Main). Bielefeld: Kerber Verlag, 2017.

8 See Jean Perfettini, Le Galuchat. Un matérieau mystérieux, une technique oubliée. Paris: Éditions Vial, new edition 2016; Christine Guth, ‘Towards a Global History of Shagreen’, in The Global Lives of Things. The Material Culture of Connections in the Early Modern World, edited by Anne Gerrisen and Giorgio Riello, New York: Routledge, 2016, p. 62-80; Ariane Fennetaux, ‘Party Animals: Animal Products in Portable Objects of Sociability in Eighteenth-Century Britain’. Études Anglaises 75, no. 2 (2021), 268-283. My thanks go to Ariane Fennetaux for providing the preprint of her article as well as additional literature references on the topic of “shagreen”.

9 Harry K. Wigzell, ‘Influence of Reptiles in Fashion Shoes’. The Footwear Organiser (July 1933, Supplement).

10 See Jonathan Faiers, Fur — A Sensitive Story. New Haven & London: Yale University Press, 2020, p. 43-56.

11 A sound three-part study of African colonial policy and imperial violence in its complex ethical-moral frame of reference, as well as its influence on European Art Nouveau design, using the example of the Belgian Congo has been presented by Debora L. Silverman, ‘Art Nouveau, Art of Darkness: African Lineages of Belgian Modernism’. West 86th, A Journal of Decorative Arts, Design History, and Material Culture, 18/2 (2011), p. 139-181; 19/2 (2012), p. 175-195; 20/1 (2013), p. 3-61.

12 See Edwina Ehrman, Fashioned from Nature (exh. cat. Victoria and Albert Museum). London: V&A Publishing, 2018, p. 122.

13 Karlheinz Fuchs, Die Krokodilhaut — Ein wichtiger Merkmalträger bei der Identifizierung von Krokodil-Arten. Darmstadt: Eduard Roether Verlag, 1975, mentions specialist publications from 1871 and 1913, respectively, on the subject of imitating reptile leather; in Jonathan Walford, The Seductive Shoe. London: Thames & Hudson, 2007, p. 111, there is an illustration of a pair of neo-baroque style shoes from c.1890 of American provenance, which are made of crocodile imitation leather.

14 ‘Shoe and Leather Fair — Fashions for Women’. The Times (London), No. 44894 (October 5, 1926).

15 ‘The London Shoe and Leather Fair — Retrospective Review of the Exhibits’. The Times Trade and Engineering Supplement (London), No. 642 (October 25, 1930).

16 See for instance the “Society for the Protection of Birds” (1891) in Great Britain, the “Bund für Vogelschutz” (1899) in Germany, the “National Audubon Society” (1905) in the United States, and the “Ligue pour la protection des oiseaux” (1912) in France. On the fashion of striking feather trimmings in relation to the early beginnings of the animal welfare movement and its complex implications cf. E. Ehrman, Fashioned from Nature, p. 88-98; Emily Gephart, Michael Rossi, “Refuser la cruauté. La chapellerie de plumes et la protection des oiseaux autour de 1900”. Modes pratiques — Revue d’histoire du vêtement et de la mode, 2: Sans la mode (2017), p. 36-57; Malcolm Smith, Hats: A Very UNnatural History. East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 2020, p. 73-104.

17 J. Faiers, Fur, p. 35.

18 See http://www.irv-ra.de/herkunftsnachweis/ [last accessed on 12/08/2021].

19 See Julia Long, ‘Portable Pets: Live and Apparently Live Animals in Fashion, 1880-1925’. Costume — The Journal of the Costume Society 43 (2009), p. 109-126.

20 Comparable in this respect appear, for example, fur stoles (tippets) and muffs that were a feature of late Victorian and Edwardian fashion. See E. Ehrman, Fashioned from Nature, p. 86; J. Faiers, Fur, p. 105-109.

21 D. L. Silverman, ‘Art Nouveau, Art of Darkness’, Part I, p. 139.

22 Julia V. Emberley, Venus and Furs. The Cultural Politics of Furs. London: I. B. Tauris, 1997, p. 17. Similar connections with reference to the above-mentioned feather hat fashion in the decades around 1900 are analysed by E. Gephart and M. Rossi, ‘Refuser la cruauté’.

23 In recent years, Mark Auliya, a biologist working at the “Helmholtz Zentrum für Umweltforschung” in Leipzig/Germany, published several scientific essays on the subject, see https://www.ufz.de/index.php?de=38972 [last accessed on 12/08/2021]

24 See for instance PETA, ‘Crocodiles Cut Open and Skinned in Vietnam for Handbags’. https://www.peta.org.uk/features/cruelty-behind-crocodile-skin-handbags/ [last accessed on 12/08/2021]; Pro Wildlife e. V., ‘Reptilleder — ein grausamer Luxus’, https://www.prowildlife.de/hintergrund/reptilleder/ [last accessed on 12/08/2021]. Such campaigns, however, may fall short in view of the highly complex subject or appear problematic in other respects; see J. V. Emberley, Venus and Furs, p. 205; J. Faiers, Fur. p. 37-40.

25 E.g. Jennifer Hinz, ‘Viele der Alternativen zu Leder schaden eher’. Welt online (July 4, 2017), https://www.welt.de/icon/unterwegs/article161727861/Viele-der-Alternativen-zu-Leder-schaden-eher.html [last accessed on 12/08/2021]; Naomi Bailey Cooper, ‘Fur and Exotic Animal Materials: A Model for Luxury Non-Animal Embellishment’. Luxury. History, Culture. Consumption, no. 1 (2020), p. 1-15.

26 See IUCN Species Survival Commission, ‘Is banning exotic leather bad for reptiles?’. Crossroads Blog. Open Letters to IUCN Members (March 25, 2019) https://www.iucn.org/crossroads-blog/201903/banning-exotic-leather-bad-reptiles [last accessed on 12/08/2021]; Jennifer Collins, ‘Schlangenleder und Krokodilhaut in der Mode: Verbieten oder regulieren?’. DW (June 23, 2019) https://www.dw.com/de/schlangenleder-und-krokodilhaut-in-der-mode-verbieten-oder-regulieren/a-49208450 [last accessed on 12/08/2021]

27 Jackie Mellon, ‘Is fish skin the new frontier for eco-friendly fashion?’ (November 20, 2019). https://jackiemallon.com/2019/11/20/is-fish-skin-the-new-frontier-for-eco-friendly-fashion/ [last accessed on 12/08/2021]

28 An example is a gown made of fish leather for a Nanai woman that comes from Amur, Siberia and dates from the nineteenth century, see I. Florschütz, ed., Leder. Welt. Geschichte, p. 194. See also Brigitte Buberl and M. Dückershoff eds., Palast des Wissens. Die Kunst- und Wunderkammer Zar Peters des Großen. Munich: Hirmer, 2003, p. 136.

29 29 See Anne Sudrow, Der Schuh im Nationalsozialismus. Eine Produktgeschichte im deutsch-britisch-amerikanischen Vergleich. Göttingen: Wallstein, 2010, p. 270-274. The situation in fascist Italy was similar, see for instance Stefania Ricci, ‘La calzatura tra le due guerre. Un percorso di materiali’, in Moda femminile tra le due guerre, edited by Caterina Chiarelli (exh. cat. Galleria del Costume, Palazzo Pitti, Florenz). Livorno: Sillabe, 2000, p. 56-61.

30 30 “Immerhin muß Fischleder einstweilen weniger als Gebrauchs- denn als Luxusleder, besser ausgedrückt, als Leder modischen Charakters betrachtet und bewertet werden”, Hans Klawiter, ‘Fischleder und seine volkswirtschaftliche Bedeutung, in Der Vierjahresplan. Berlin, November 20, 1940; translation by the author.

31 31 The “Frankfurter Modeamt” (Fashion Office of the City of Frankfurt) was founded in 1933. At the instigation of the NSDAP, Frankfurt was to become the German fashion capital and the center of the German fashion industry. The Fashion Office, together with the fashion class of the municipal fashion school, was destined to evolve the tradition of tailoring in Frankfurt. After the beginning of the war, due to the shortage of raw materials, fashion students experimented with substitute fabrics for clothing. On this institution see Frankfurt Macht Mode 1933-1945, edited by Almut Junker, Marburg: Jonas Verlag, 1999. According to Anne Sudrow, fish leather served primarily as a substitute material for reptile or luxury leather in this context, see A. Sudrow, Der Schuh im Nationalsozialismus, p. 271.

32 32 Sept ans à peine se sont écoulés depuis le début de l’ère reptilienne”, La Dépêche coloniale (Paris), no. 9893 (December 16, 1930).

33 33 W. P. Tebilco: Charles Tait & Co. Ltd, ‘Reptiles and Fashion Shoes’. The Footwear Organiser & Shoe and Leather Trades Export Journal, (July 1933, Supplement), p. 46f.

34 34 Edwina Ehrman mentions toxic chromium waste and Alison Matthews David names various highly toxic by-products of aniline, the dangers of which have been known since the late nineteenth century but, in view of the results achieved with them, were often played down and ignored by the textile and leather industries until well into the twentieth century. E. Ehrman, Fashioned from Nature, p. 122; Alison Matthews David, Fashion Victims. The Dangers of Dress Past and Present. London & New York: Bloomsbury, 2015, p. 100-111.

35 35 A report on the “Hamburg Boot and Shoe Market” by the then US consul in April 1927, for example, gives the following specific details on sales price differences of fashionable ladies' pumps: “Plain, thin leather shoes retail as low as 12,50 marks and as high as 30 marks a pair […]. Shoes made entirely of snake skin sell for 37 marks, and those of alligator skin for 42 marks – these shoes have, practically without exception, high heels, semipointed toes, and one strap across the instep”, Consul Walter A. Foote, Hamburg, Germany, ‘Hamburg Boot and Shoe Market’. Commerce Reports (Washington), 17 (April 25, 1927).

36 36 E. M. Curtis, ‘Will Reptile Skins Remain in Fashion?’. The Footwear Organiser (March 1932), p. 184.

37 37 Linda O’Keeffe, Shoes — A Celebration of Pumps, Sandals, Slippers & More. New York: Workman Publishing, 1997, p. 46-49; Angela Pattison and Nigel Cawthorne, Shoes, Icons of Style in the 20th Century. A Century of Style. London: Quarto Publishing, 1998, p. 16; Suzanne Lussier, Art Deco Fashion. London: V&A Publishing, 2003, p. 69; A. L. Quilleriet, Cuir, p. 139.

38 38 Pierre Legrain: Cigarette Case, c. 1925. Snake skin, dyed and tooled leather, gold leaf, 7,9 x 6,4 x 2,9 cm. New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art, inv.1979.317.3ab. https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/481983 [last accessed on 12/08/2021].

39 39 Le commerce nourrit l’attrait pour les produits exotique. […] La connotation orientale n’est pas éloignée de celle de la barbarie, Vincent Cochet, ‘Sauvage et martial, exotique et fantaisiste, le goût pour les peaux de léopard aux XVIIIe et XIXe siècles’, in Pelage et plumage. Quand l’animal prend de l’étoffe, edited by Danièle Véron-Denise, Actes des Journées d’Études, Centre national du costume de scène, Moulins, Saint-Maur-des-Fossés: Éditions Sépia, 2015, p. 124.

40 40 See Martin H. Geyer and Eckhard Hellmuth, ‘Einleitung — „Konsum konstruiert die Welt“‘, in Exotica. Konsum und Inszenierung des Fremden im 19. Jahrhundert, edited by Hans-Peter Bayerdörfer and Eckhart Hellmuth. Münster: Lit-Verlag, 2003, p. XXVI.

41 41 Fusion Fashion. Culture Beyond Orientalism and Occidentalism, edited by Gertrud Lehnert and Gabriele Mentges, Frankfurt et al.: PL Academic Research, 2013, p. 7. The large debate on Orientalism can only be touched here; see further on this subject, with special reference to dress e.g. Richard Martin and Harold Koda, Orientalism. Visions of the East in Western Dress (exh. cat., The Metropolitan Museum of Art). New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1994; Touches d’exotisme: XIVe-XXe siècles (exh. cat., Musée de la Mode et du Textile). Paris: Union Centrale des Arts Décoratifs, 1998; Adam Geczy, Fashion and Orientalism. Dress, Textiles and Culture from the 17th to the 21st Century. London et al.: Bloomsbury, 2013.

42 42 M. H. Geyer and E. Hellmut, ‘Einleitung’, p. XXI. For a more intensive discussion of different aspects of ‘Orientalism’ or ‘exotic’ fashion trends from a critical, postcolonial perspective, compare various contributions in the anthology Fashion and Postcolonial Critique, edited by Elke Gaugele and Monica Titton, Berlin: Sternberg Press, 2019. Of particular interest in the present context is Gabriele Mentges, ‘Reviewing Orientalism and Re-orienting Fashion beyond Europe’, p. 128-141.

43 43 Carla Jones and Ann Marie Leshkowich, ‘Introduction: The Globalization of Asian Dress: Re-Orienting Fashion or Re-Orienting Asia?’, in Re-Orienting Fashion. The Globalization of Asian Dress, edited by Sandra Niessen, Carla Jones and Ann Leshkowich. Oxford: Berg, 2003, p. 1.

44 44 C. Jones and A. M. Leshkowich, ‘Introduction’, p. 5f.

45 45 Debora L. Silverman examined these intricate connections in detail using the example of “Belgian art nouveau as a specifically Congo style and as ‘imperial modernism’”, see D. L. Silverman, ‘Art Nouveau, Art of Darkness’.

46 46 A. Geczy, Fashion and Orientalism, p. 6.

47 47 Michelle Tolini Finamore, ‘Fashioning the Colonial at the Paris Expositions, 1925 and 1931’. Fashion Theory. The Journal of Dress, Body & Culture, 7/3-4 (September 2003), p. 345-360. See also Patricia Mears, ‘Orientalism’, in Encyclopedia of Clothing and Fashion, edited by Valerie Steele, Detroit: Thomson Gale, 2005, p. 271-272.

48 48 ‘The Uses of Snake Skin — Imperial Institute Exhibition’. The Times, no. 46674 (February 9, 1934). Similar reports on the exhibition are published in The Manchester Guardian, no. 27273 (February 7, 1934) and no. 27275 (February 9, 1934). Already in July 1933 the key position of Great Britain for the reptile leather market was emphasized from an economic point of view, by simultaneously noting: “We are also in the very enviable position of having most reptile skins coming from the Empire” (P. Gildesgame, ‘England, the World Market’. The Footwear Organiser, (July 1933, Supplement), p. 46.)

49 49 Elyssa Da Cruz, ‘Man-Eater’, in A. Bolton, Wild: Fashion Untamed, p. 144-175. See also Sofia Gnoli, ‘The Beautiful Serpent of Earthly Paradise’, in Patricia Lurati, Animalia Fashion (exh. cat. Le Gallerie degli Uffizi). Florence: Firenze Musei & Sillabe, 2019, p. 149-151.

50 50 Madame Yevonde: Mrs Edward Mayer, as Medusa, 1935. Photographie (Vivexprint). Private collection, Yevonde Portrait Archive.

51 51 John Collier: Lilith, 1887. Oil on canvas, 200 x 104 cm. Southport, Atkinson Art Gallery. See Alison Smith, Exposed. The Victorian Nude. New York: Watson-Guptill, 2001, fig. 138.

52 52 Herbert James Draper: Lamia, 1909. Oil on canvas, 127 x 69 cm. Private collection.

53 53 Theda Bara in “Cleopatra”, 1917. Film still, advertising photography. See A. Geczy, Fashion and Orientalism, p. 151; Randy Bryan Bigham and Leslie Midkiff Debauche ‘Theda Bara and her style: The vamp’s influence on fashion (1915-25)’. Clothing Cultures, 6/2 (2018), p. 285-302.

54 54 Sigmund Reiss, ‘Der Traum vom Schuhladen, mit Frühjahrsmodellen der Firma Reiss, Berlin, Schillstr. 11a. (Aufnahmen von Etty Hirschfeld), Revue des Monats, Berlin 6/3 (April 1928/29). See https://www.arthistoricum.net/werkansicht/dlf/77531/94# [last accessed on 11/08/2021].

55 55 “Die moderne Frau Eva war es, die die Schlange neuerdings zu einem Nutztier in gewissem Sinne gemacht hat. Immer neue Modeartikel aus Schlangenleder sind während der letzten Jahre auf dem Markt erschienen […].(‘Die Schlange begehrter Artikel, Kölnische Zeitung, 11 (January 7, 1934; translation by the author). Several reports with corresponding content from the nineteen-thirties issues of The Footwear Organiser conform the assessment.

56 56 Harry K. Wigzell, ‘Influence of Reptiles in Fashion Shoes’. The Footwear Organiser & Shoe and Leather Trades Export Journal (July 1933, Supplement).

57 57 See Birgit Haase, ‘“Walking in Crocodile” Modische Damenschuhe aus Reptilleder’, in Über Schuhe. Zur Geschichte und Theorie der Fußbekleidung, edited by Anna-Brigitte Schlittler and Katharina Tietze, Bielefeld: transcript, 2016, p. 29f.

58 58 Only recently a rethink seems to emerge in some parts of the luxury branch; see N. Bailey-Cooper, ‘Fur and Exotic Animal Materials’, p. 2-4.

59 59 G. S. Saword, ‘Reptiles are Here for Good’. The Footwear Organiser & Shoe and Leather Trades Export Journal (July 1931), p. 35.

60 60 A. Bolton, Wild: Fashion Untamed, p. 11.

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Table des illustrations

Titre Fig. 1: Handbag made of monitor lizard skin, c. 1950s. Leather, glass, brass, suede lining; height (without handle): 17 cm, width: 30 cm, depth: 9 cm
Légende Private collection, Hamburg, Germany
Crédits © Birgit Haase
URL http://journals.openedition.org/apparences/docannexe/image/3831/img-1.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 935k
Titre Fig. 2: Charles Martin, De la Pomme aux Lèvres. Travesti de Redfern, February 1913. Line etching and pochoir on paper, 24,5 x 19 cm. Illustration from Gazette du Bon Ton, no. 4 (February 1913), Pl.V
Légende Hamburg, Museum für Kunst und Gewerbe, inv. EG2017.4.8
URL http://journals.openedition.org/apparences/docannexe/image/3831/img-2.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 48k
Titre Fig. 3: Handbag made of python skin with matching accessories, c. early 1950s. Python skin, brass, suede lining; height (without handle): 11 cm, width: 23 cm, depth: 4/9,5 cm
Légende Private collection, Hamburg, Germany
Crédits © Birgit Haase
URL http://journals.openedition.org/apparences/docannexe/image/3831/img-3.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 571k
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Birgit Haase, « “Reptiles are Here for Good” »Apparence(s) [En ligne], 11 | 2022, mis en ligne le 11 février 2022, consulté le 04 juillet 2022. URL : http://journals.openedition.org/apparences/3831 ; DOI : https://doi.org/10.4000/apparences.3831

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Auteur

Birgit Haase

Dr. Birgit Haase is Professor of Fashion History and Fashion Theory at Hamburg University of Applied Sciences. She holds a PhD in Cultural History and has a long-established career as a fashion scholar and specialist author.
birgit.haase[at]haw-hamburg.de

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Les contenus de la revue Apparence(s) sont disponibles selon les termes de la Licence Creative Commons Attribution - Pas d’Utilisation Commerciale - Pas de Modification 4.0 International.

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