Furs were the first clothes, stripped off the same beasts that provided food and bone tools. Fur clothes were strictly utilitarian until people learned to spin thread fine enough to weave into cloth soft enough to drape around the body. Once that happened, maybe about 7,000 years ago, fur worn by people became both a luxury and a symbol of wealth and power, and it still is. Fortunately or not, we can never go back to those artless Paleolithic days.
But after millennia of arrogance laced with sensuality for some and awe laced with rancor for most, fur has been tamed and put in its place. Men and women swathed in seal and sable are no longer obvious lords of the world, trailing intimidating allusions to Renaissance princes or Russian czars and their consorts; instead, they look faintly out-of-date. And those spectacular women in tailored leopard coats, still found in old movies, have vanished from real life ever since the idea took hold that exotic fur garments were not just too luxurious but also bad for the soul and bad for the planet. These days, the wearer of a big coat made wholly of fur seems almost to be hiding inside an animal costume, disguised as a member of an endangered species, as it were.
W hat looks suitable now is fur in piquant traces, decorative little sealskin scarves or squirrel trim for hoods or neat fox collars for coats. All these are very attractive, and marginal enough to suggest the wearer's superiority to fashion altogether, in accordance with the current style. In the same spirit, they can all be jolly fakes. Real is fine; fake is essentially no different. That's because textile technology has finally produced a range of synthetic fluff that vies with fur in visual beauty and tactile lusciousness. Some of this synthetic fiber is wrought into velvet and its cousins plush and chenille, materials known to be man-made even when made of silk. In their company, man-made chinchilla and mink don't seem in the least false.
Best of all, now we can have no fur but the image of fur, pictured skins of the rarest kind with which we can enjoy ourselves in a range of materials. Fur has solved its social and economic identity problem by leaping out of nature and into the virtual-reality third millennium. So we can have plastic hair clips or cotton potholders in zebra skin, vinyl-covered hassocks in giraffe pelt, soft corduroy sofa cushions or tough twill suitcases in tiger fur, and nylon zipper jackets in Dalmatian spots for 4-year-olds. Cheetah spots merge with giraffe spots on bright green or purple Lycra stretch pants. I have a tawny silk blouse printed with a clever blend of black lace and leopard skin. In it I can vaguely resemble a leopard wearing see-through lingerie, a nice mélange of warring erotic symbols.
Iacquired this blouse soon after my adventures last August. I was in Botswana, looking at the indigenous wild beasts in their living flesh and fur, and I came to understand why leopard is the most desirable of all the fur prints for clothes. It's because of the way a real leopard behaves. All the African animals we saw--spotted, striped, or plain, wart hogs and wildebeests no less than elephants and antelopes, zebras and giraffes--were beautiful, with the integrity of physical design and movement they share with other animals. But among them, it's the leopard who seems to feel it.
We saw only one (they're discreet)--a female, we were told. We watched her emerge from a thicket into a sunlit clearing, and pose. There's no other word for it. She stood perfectly still, head up, tail in a majestic arc, while we stared entranced for a full 30 seconds. Then she paced slowly off as if on a runway, each perfect paw straight in front of the other, haunches delicately swaying, tail holding its curve, peerless coat glittering in the sun. Our guide said that only the leopard walks like that--the lions just shamble and clump along. Of course we deeply loved and respected all those heavy-footed lions, and all those high-shouldered cheetahs, too. But the leopard is another thing; and all things considered, we want to be like her.
People have felt this way for a very long time. A week ago I was looking among the Egyptian antiquities in the renovated Louvre, and my eye was caught by a small painted limestone panel from the tomb of Princess Nefertiabet, who lived and died in the reign of her kinsman Cheops, 2590-2565 B.C. The young princess is shown seated before a low table, her hands engaged with some objects and her body clad in a long, clinging, one-shouldered Thierry Mugler dress entirely covered with leopard spots. Well, well, well. This was no real animal's pelt. Leopard skins do appear frequently in ancient Egyptian art, but as privileged ritual gear, slung over the shoulders of priests with paws and tail dangling down. No, by golly, here was a 4,500-year-old leopard-print dress, worthy of being worn for eternity in the Realm of the Dead. I turned my head and saw the woman next to me wearing a leopard-print scarf, and I felt a little dizzy. You couldn't exactly say that leopard print is always in fashion. But you would have to admit that it's always in force.