Animal Fads and Fashions in the 18th and 19th Century

Monstrosities of 1818, Courtesy of Library of Congress
Fashion “Monstrosities of 1818.” Courtesy of Library of Congress.

It seems as if animals have always had some effect on fashion. Beavers were all the rage in the 17th century to the point they became decimated in Europe and paved the way for North America to become the premier supplier of beaver pelts. But it was not just beavers that consumers wanted. Other animals became fashionable and all sorts of crazes for these animals appeared in the 1700 and 1800s. Moreover, these animal fads and fashions were not just popular in London or France, they were popular across the European continent. Some of the fashionable animals of these times included the stoat, giraffe, chimpanzee, rhinoceros, and various birds.

Coat of Arms of the Former Duchy of Brittany, Courtesy of Wikipedia
Coat of arms of the former Duchy of Brittany. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Between the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries Russia began to deal in stoat. This weasel-like animal had a particularly wonderful winter coat, referred to as ermine. Ermine was silky and dense and frequently used to trim robes, crowns, and peerage caps, thus it was considered a “royal and noble ornament.” It was also used to line coronation cloaks, achieved by sewing numerous ermine furs together so as to create a pattern with the hanging black-tipped tails of the stoat. Additionally, ermine became attached to heraldry. This caused one nineteenth century writer to note that ermine was “the principal furs employed in the heraldry of any country, and the only ones known in France or Scotland.”[1]

Because of ermine’s royal connotation, common people became enamored with it, and a design called ermine became popular. People everywhere began to paint ermine spots onto cheaper furs, which was the case with the ceremonial robes in the House of Lords: They were actually miniver (rabbit fur) but painted with black spots to look like ermine. Ermine or ermine-looking furs were also extremely fashionable during Regency times. The fashion magazine, Belle Assemblée, regularly reported on how ermine or ermine tippets were used with pelisses, walking dresses, carriage costumes, muffs, or wraps.

Animal Fads and Fashions: Giraffe Bow, Public Domain
Giraffe bow. Public domain.

In the 1820s, another interesting animal fashion took hold of Europeans. This fashion was called à la giraffe and it became all the rage in 1826 after a female giraffe was given to Charles X and a male giraffe was presented to George IV by the Ottoman Viceroy of Egypt, Mehmet Ali Pasha. When the giraffes landed in Marseilles, it was the first time the exotic animal was seen in Europe. People were so fascinated by it, everyone embraced à la giraffe. “Bonnets, shoes, gloves, [ribands,] and gowns were made à la giraffe; quadrilles, too, were danced, and café-au-lait made à la giraffe.”[2] You could also find the couleur giraffe on all sorts of shawls, hats, and shoes. Also popular was the enormous giraffe bow created using one, two, or even three bows shaped by wire and fastened securely so as to cover a woman’s entire head. In 1829, the à la Giraffe hairdo became popular. It was an elevated style and consisted of “innumerable curls in raised clusters, confined by narrow platted braids, which by being twisted round, support[ed], and [kept] them firm together.”[3] However, a year late the hairdo was out of style causing one journalist to write “the giraffe head-dress made the fairest female a ‘figure o’ fun!'”[4]

Buffon's Illustration of Jacko, Author's Collection
Buffon’s illustration of Jocko. Author’s collection.

Just like the giraffe craze of the early nineteenth century, a similar craze for chimpanzees occurred years earlier in France. In the 1600s, great apes were identified as orangutans (this was later corrected) and were thought to be pongos or jockos (orangutans or chimpanzees, respectively), and so pongo and jocko were used haphazardly and interchangeably. In the 1730s, Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon, was a naturalist and at the time serving as the surintendant of the Jardin du Roi in Paris. Buffon wanted to transform the Jardin, and when an infant chimpanzee was captured in Angola around 1740, it was presented to him. The animal Buffon received was named Jocko (some people say Jacko). Unfortunately, Jocko did not survive long in captivity, but his short presence did whip up much excitement because chimpanzees were very rare in Europe at the time. Similar to the popularity of à la giraffe, when poor Jocko expired, Parisian women honored the ape’s memory by wearing materials called “Jocko’s last sigh.” 

Portrait of Clara in Paris in 1749, by Jean-Baptiste Oudry, Courtesy of Wikipedia
Portrait of Clara in Paris in 1749, by Jean-Baptiste Oudry. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

As popular as Jocko was, there was a certain rhinoceros that was even more popular. She was a female Indian rhinoceros whose mother was killed by hunters. She was adopted by Jan Albert Sichterman, a director of the Dutch East Indian Company, but, eventually, in 1740, the gentle rhino became the possession of Douwe Mout van der Meer, Captain of the Knappenhof, who took her to the Netherlands. He then began to exhibit her under the name “Dutch,” until four years later when she became known as “Clara.”

Clara’s exhibits were successful and the rhino became an immediate star. Honors followed her wherever she went. For instance, in Germany, Clara posed for the modeller, Johann Joachim Kaendler, in the creation of some Meissen porcelain, and, in 1751, the French Navy named a vessel Rhinocéros. During the five months (January to June 1749) that Clara was exhibited in France, she was particularly popular and everything became à la rhinocéros. Poems were written about her, a pigeon soup named for her, and even wigs were created à la rhinocéros. Buffon also examined her, and the famous French Rocco painter, Jean-Baptiste Oudry painted her portrait. In 1751, Clara also appeared in Venice at a carnival and was painted by the Venetian painter Pietro Longhi. One of the last places Clara was exhibited was in Lambeth, England, where she died on 14 April 1758 at the age of 20.

Lady Godina's Rout; -or- Peeping-Tom Spying Out Pope-Joan, Courtesy of British Museum
Lady Godina’s Rout; -or- Peeping-Tom Spying Out Pope-Joan. Courtesy of British Museum.

Another fashion embraced by Europeans was bird feathers. Popular feathers ranged from the ostrich to the goose and from the emu to the peacock. In 1775, ostrich feathers were popular enough they upstaged current events. It happened when the Latin Gazette narrated in great detail the ostrich feathers worn by the Duchess of Devonshire instead of mentioning the important events surrounding America and its revolution.

Extremely tall feathers also became all rage in England during the Regency Era. This resulted in numerous illustrations of women wearing them, and the Times found such humor in their extended height, they reported that “a well-dressed Lady, who nods with dexterity, can give a friend a little tap upon the shoulder across the room, without incommoding the dancers.”[5] Another article jokingly said, “The Ladies now wear feathers exactly at their own length, so that a woman of fashion is twice as long upon her feet as in her bed.”[6]

Apparently, however, tall feathers were not just fashionable; they were also reportedly dangerous. There were several reports of women’s heads catching fire when their feathers brushed against a candelabra, and there was this gem too:

“A young lady, only ten feet high, was overset in one of the late gales of wind, in Portland Place, and the upper mast of her feather blown upon Hampstead Hill.”[7]


  • [1] The Edinburgh Encyclopaedia, 1832, p. 329.
  • [2] Sanderson, John, Sketches of Paris, 1838, p. 93.
  • [3] The Spirit of the English Magazines, 1829, p. 126. 
  • [4] The Edinburgh Literary Journal, 1830, p. 249.
  • [5] Mitton, Geraldine Edith, Jane Austen and Her Times, 1905, p. 125.
  • [6] Ashton, John, Old Times, a Picture of Social Life at the End of the 18th Century, 1885, p. 75.
  • [7] Ibid.

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