By Alan Dean Foster
Some of us wear fur. Thanks to changing mores (as opposed to charging more, which has always influenced who wears fur), even more of us wear fake fur.
Then there’s Stalking Cat.
Stalking Cat’s real name was Dennis Avner. I met Dennis a couple of times at “furry” conventions. Dennis held the world record for “most permanent transformations to look like an animal.” Specifically, a tiger. Fourteen surgical procedures plus makeup gave him prominent canines, bulging cheeks, broad stripes, flattened nostrils, and much more. While he tended to alternately amaze and freak out non-furries, representatives of primitive societies would have understood immediately what he was all about. Namely, trying to partake of animal, non-human characteristics that we admire and can ourselves aspire to possess only in our imagination. That’s why we dress up as animals for Halloween and office parties and costume balls.
Dennis died a little over a year ago. There was a melancholy about him that only manifested itself in quiet, private conversation. He was honestly sorry he wasn’t born a tiger. While he was not alone in wishing this (as others might prefer to be an eagle, or a lion, or a gazelle), he went further than nearly anyone I know in striving to meet his goal. But no amount of plastic surgery could transform the human inside him.
Why do we do it?
Why are animal prints and patterns and accessories so popular in the world of fashion? It isn’t as if there are no aesthetic alternatives. But we always see, regardless of how they are manipulated, animal spots and stripes, butterfly wings and fish scales, feathers and leathers adorning wasp-waisted models as they prance down the fashion runway. Every year, in endless permutations.
It has been so since the beginning of time. Nor is this an affectation that’s restricted to women. Zulu chieftains in South Africa still adorn themselves in leopard pelts (now trending, thankfully, to faux ones) on ceremonial occasions. Senior chiefs and warriors in South America proudly put on their best feather necklaces and headdresses when attending formal political functions. In the Sepik River region of Papua New Guinea, young men continue to endure the ritual of having their backs scarred with sharp blades into which are rubbed fireplace ashes, resulting in lines of raised skin that closely resemble the scutes of the locally revered crocodile.
Why do we do it?
Such adornments are “pretty,” to be sure. In primordial societies, it’s often done in the hopes that the wearer of an animal’s skin, or imitation thereof, will imbue the wearer with that particular creature’s beauty or powers. Wear eagle feathers and perhaps, in some way, you might fly. Put on a lion’s mane to assume some of his strength. Wear a leopard coat (even a fake one) on Fifth Avenue and you’ll not only be warm, and maybe passers-by will find you sleek and strong and a little big dangerous.
What’s going on here has nothing to do with what we see but what we think, and it’s something that is true of both the wearer and the watcher. In that respect, from an anthropological standpoint, we’ve changed very little from our ancestors who busied themselves finger-painting mastodons and horses in caves in France and elsewhere.
Humans dominate Earth. We overpopulate and control and flick other species aside whenever it suits our needs of the moment. But we still, after hundreds of thousands of years of evolution, envy our biological brethren. Yes, we’re smarter than the cat — but we’d love to run and hunt as fast and gracefully as they do. So we (pace, Dennis) dress up as cats. In our nakedness, we envy the fox. So we wear fox. The wolf is stronger than we are, so (where legal), winter coat hoods are made of wolf (or again, imitation). You don’t see men wearing winter coats boasting hoods rimmed with chinchilla.
No man wears a necklace to the beach that sports pig teeth. But tusks, or feline canines, or alligator teeth, or even a fossilized theropod dinosaur tooth: You see those all the time. Because even in this modern day and age, we still strive for a simulated connection with powerful or beautiful species by wearing their body parts.
We may be the ascendant species, but after tens of thousands of years we continue to partake of those primeval characteristics we like to believe we’ve left behind. Tell a friend your wallet is leather and you’ll be rewarded with a shrug or a blank stare. Tell him it’s sharkskin and you’ll get an immediate reaction. Not because said wallet may wear longer than one made of leather, but because, in his eyes, you have suddenly taken unto yourself — however infinitesimally — the qualities of that ferocious creature.
It’s all in the mind, not in the eye.
No matter how many centuries have passed.
Alan Dean Foster is author of more than 120 books, visitor to more than 100 countries, and still frustrated by the human species. Follow him at AlanDeanFoster.Com.