In light of Disney’s recent release of the live-action film, Cruella (2021), I think it’s safe to say that animal fashion remains relevant in pop culture. We see this in animated shows and fashion doll lines that incorporate furs, feathers, skins and hides into their products and designs.
What does animal fashion in each medium represent and what does it mean for the wider picture? How do fashion, society and media all mesh together?
In animation, it might purely be to suit the aesthetics of the medium as we see in the animated show The Flintstones (1960), which is set in the Stone Age. A time where skins and furs were used for survival purposes, rather than fashion over function reasons, which is now less common in the modern era due to human advancement.
We see this fashion over function mentality reflected in the film, The Hundred And One Dalmatians (1961), which features the villain, Cruella de Vil, a fashionista obsessed with Dalmatian fur. Cruella de Vil is depicted as cruel, manic and obsessive. The more recent depiction of the same character in the aforementioned film Cruella changes this by making Cruella a cool, cut-throat woman, who aims to exact revenge on her former mentor.
Both versions depict Cruella as a villain in different ways due in part to her lack of empathy for the dalmatians. Yet at the same time, both are characters who happen to have a passion for fashion. A seemingly common troupe in Hollywood films, where heads of fashion labels are often depicted as abusive.
And thus does the demonisation of fashion pay on, its role as shorthand for all that is morally corrupt and venal in the world continues.
That said, these films could also just be a means to expose elements of a toxic workplace. Nevertheless, this shouldn't distract from how the most prominent fashion films to date such as The Devil Wears Prada (2006) depict the fashion industry as an unfriendly, distrustful, war-like environment.
Character design uses its visual elements to express character like fashion does
In some cases, we even see anthropomorphic characters like The Cheetah from the DC comics, Melon from Beastars who have spots on their fur. Whilst not exactly fashion, this is character design, a practice where design elements often reflect the personalities of characters just as clothing would. Despite coming from different settings and stories, both spotted characters are both portrayed as dangerous and terrifying.
Though Cheetah and Melon are not fashionistas in any way, the two can still be compared to Cruella de Vil. Cheetah has been described as an obsessive person. Similar to the 1961's depiction of Cruella, it is ultimately her behaviour that results in her downfall, causing her to become a hybrid between a human and a cheetah.
On the other hand, Melon is more similar to the 2021 depiction of Cruella, as he had suffered domestic abuse, resulting in his unhinged murderous behaviour. Cruella and Melon are both characters who suffered from some form of abuse and lashes out as a direct result of it. For many, leopard print, furs and hides have become a symbol of wealth, power and independence. I think the traits attributed to both Cheetah and Melon are a good indication of this interpretation dialled up to the max.
Every rule comes with an exception, in this case, characters like Officer Clawhauser from Zootopia (2016) and Cheetara from ThunderCats (1985), who are also spotted, are characterised as kind and gentle. However, unlike Cruella, Melon and Cheetah, Officer Clawhauser and Cheetara are simply regulated to being side characters.
It's also interesting to note that Beastars and Zootopia have similar stories, both of which are set in a hypothetical world of herbivore and carnivore dynamics, where discrimination is prevalent. While one is more child-friendly than the other, both provide an introspective exploration into society's injustices.
Animal fashion is not just portrayed in visual media but also through tangible products
Speaking for having a passion for fashion, Bratz is an American fashion doll line, which had its start in the early 2000s and has managed to remain on shelves alongside its long-standing rival Barbie, who interestingly debuted in a zebra-print swimsuit in 1959.
Instead of being a direct commentary on society, due to the nature of fashion dolls, these franchises put out multiple clothing lines (quite a few include feather boas and animal print clothing) that reflects the fashion of the current era and most desirable body shape or appearance. Fashion is often a result of the shifting tides in societal norms.
“Little girls buy fashion dolls with idealized proportions which means slightly larger heads, eyes and lips; slightly smaller noses and waists; and slightly longer limbs than those that appear routinely in nature,” Kozinski wrote, giving “slightly” a meaning I never knew it had. But only so much exaggeration is possible, he went on. “Make the head too large or the waist too small and the doll becomes freakish.” - The New Yorker
Let your own characters have their own spotlight
In essence, fashion comes in many forms. Fashion and media help us explore the intricacies of interpersonal relationships and society. On dolls, on characters and in character design; it is the embodiment of how people want to portray themselves. Resulting in design choices for media being a reflection of how people view certain patterns, personalities and industries.
While leaning into a stereotype can help make your character recognisable, it will ultimately cause you to box in your characters and something negative about the people or type of people you are depicting, which is something we should all be more aware of.