Reptile Fabric History
As the fashion-minded among us already know, snakeskin is in this season. From python iPhones to Jimmy Choo’s line of snakeskin shoes, the scaly fabric is embossed upon all the latest looks. But since when did the skin of these serpentine creatures become so sought-after anyway? Snakes of all sizes are feared and loathed by many. So why would so many people be willing to wear the skin of an animal that makes their skin crawl?
Typically, the snakeskin used in clothing is really leather or fabric embossed with a snakeskin pattern. Along with cheetah spots and leopard fur, it’s been circulating fashion runways for years, but now trumps other animal patterns in popularity. Handbag company Kooba’s creative director Abbe Held describes the allure of snakeskin as “beautiful, rich and earthy.” Referring to the snakeskin’s retro look, Held asserts that the material contributes a lot of “character and personality” while remaining neutral. Moreover, snakeskin’s textured surface allows for intriguing variances of color. Lucky magazine’s creative director Andrea Linett concurs that since snakeskin is highly adaptable, it can seamlessly transcend the categories of sexy to edgy to classic. Similarly, Vice President Nicole Fischelis of Macy’s group ready-to-wear fashion that snakeskin’s appeal is its fusion to other styles and shades, as well as its applicability with dresses or sportswear.
So snakeskin’s rise in popularity can be attributed to its interesting textures and wide range of use. But its appeal may stretch even further than stylistic choices. Snakes have long held a symbolic value since the times of ancient Egypt, when serpentine-shaped jewelry was a common adornment, most noticeably on the pharaoh’s crown. The Nile cobra was not only worshipped as a god but moreover a deadly weapon, as in Cleopatra.
In ancient Greece and Judaism, the snake was often revered as a symbol of healing, and snake handlers present at Christian church services were seen as testaments of divine protection. However, it is probably in Indian history that snakes are most deeply entwined. Here snakes are still regarded as godly, with certain temples dedicated to cobra worship. Cobras are often depicted draped around the necks of Hindu deities Shiva and Vishnu, and the annual Hindu festival Nag Panchami is a day of snake veneration and prayer.
Despite being a place of worship for snakes, India is also the center of snake trapping. Here the hunter-gatherer tribe of Irulas has captured snakes for generations by using a simple stick to stun the snake from behind. After the Indian Wildlife Protection Act of 1972, the hunters allegedly stopped harvesting snakes for the snakeskin industry, instead catching them for venom extraction as an organization known as the Irula Snake Catcher’s Cooperative. The collected venom is used for medicinal products, including antivenin, which can save lives. Occasionally the Irulas eat captured snakes, or release them in the villages to control rat populations. Since snakes are so deeply rooted in both the cultural and functional tapestry of India, one can imagine how they would have an influence on fashion as well.
But how did snakeskin pervade American fashion? Its most memorable introduction to our shores was probably in the cowboy-inspired trends of the 70s, when the rugged reptile’s fabric was applied to boots and belts, though Louis Vuitton had been producing exotic skin travel bags for customers since 1892. Now, however, fashion-conscious stars are redefining snake-inspired styles for their own reasons. For example, Angelina Jolie’s fondness for snakes stemmed from a gift of a serpentine ring worn during her pregnancy with son Shiloh. Since then, she’s regarded the creatures to be good luck charms, prompting her snaked-themed capsule collection with Asprey jewelers.
Thus snakeskin fabric has journeyed from the Indian dry lands where it is hunted, to the ruggedness of the seventies fringe fashion and finally adding texture and symbolism to the wardrobes of celebrities. Indeed, snakeskin fabric has come a long way to make it in mainstream fashion, and you can bet it’s going to stay there – for this season, anyway!