La Mode à la Girafe

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La mode à la girafe translates to giraffe fashion, that is, fashion inspired by and celebrating giraffes. Or, in the case of late 1820s France, the fashion influence of one very famous giraffe.

Nicolas Hüet, Study of the Giraffe Given to Charles X by the Viceroy of Egypt, 1827. In the collection of the Morgan Library and Museum.

On October 23, 1826 a female giraffe arrived at the port of Marseilles. A gift from Muhammad Ali (1769-1849), the Viceroy of Egypt, to King Charles X of France (r. 1824-1830), this was the first living giraffe ever seen in France. Naturally such a strange and wonderful looking animal caused an enormous sensation. During her six month stay in Marseilles and along her journey to Paris, thousands of people came to view the curious creature. Renown zoologist Étienne Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire wrote that he "had to fight the crowds who rushed tumultuously at the animal." In Lyon, for example, over 30,000 people came to see her.

Jean-Jacques Feuchère, "Encore des Ridicules, No. 1,035: Les Girafes à la mode," c. 1826. In the collection of the Musée Carnavalet.

On June 30, 1827, the giraffe arrived in Paris to much fanfare and took up residence in the Jardin de Plantes, the world's first national menagerie. In the following months she would have an audience with the royal family, several important dignitaries, and be seen by hundreds of thousands of people. On July 12th, 1827 La Pandore reported that "the giraffe occupies all the public's attention; one talks of nothing else in the circles of the capital."

Henri-Daniel Plattel, Les Quartiers de Paris/Jardin des Plantes, c. 1827. In the collection of the Musée Carnavalet.

Naturally everyone wished to cash in on the giraffe craze. This one exotic animal inspired thousands of prints, sheet music, toys, pamphlets, and a play, and was used to sell fashion, textiles, wallpaper, ceramics, and even food. La mode à la girafe swept the nation! It should be noted that this giraffe was not the first exotic animal to inspire fashion. In 1749 there was the mode au rhinocéros [rhinoceros] and in 1786 there was the mode au zèbre [zebra].

Fashion plate from Les Journal des Dames et des Modes, July 8, 1827. In the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Yellow took on a new popularity. The Petit Courrier reported in September 1827 that "the color 'giraffe,' which is simply a kind of yellowish color, which one would have called café au lait a few years ago, is now often used for belts, workbags, and even for some dresses." And in October of the same year the Journal des Dames reported that the shade known as "belly of giraffe" was an extremely popular color. In general many fashion magazines described numerous items as being giraffe-yellow.

Detail of block-printed furnishing fabric, 1826-30. In the collection of the Musée de l'Impression sur Étoffes, Mulhouse.

It was not only the color of the giraffe that infiltrated fashion. Belt ribbons, bags, and fans were all decorated with images of giraffes and charms, pins, necklaces, cravat pins, bracelets, and cane toppers were all manufactured in the shape of a giraffe. Printed cottons, used for furnishing and dress, also bore the image of the famous animal.

Illustration from L'Art de mettre sa cravate de toutes le manières connues et usitées by Baron Émile de l'Empesé, c. 1827. In the collection of the Royal Ontario Museum.

Types of dress and even hair were inspired by the giraffe as well. Fashion historian Michele Majer describes sleeves à la girafe: "The fullness [of the sleeves] was partialy controlled by a strip of matching fabric wound twice around the arm from just above the elbow to the wrist." The coiffure à la girafe, although not much different than typical hairstyles of the day, was also mentioned in fashion periodicals. La mode à la girafe was not only for women. L'Art de mettre sa cravate de toutes le manières connues et usitées illustrated a cravat à la girafe which featured the knot placed low on the high collar and the ends hanging vertically, invoking the long neck of the giraffe.

An example of another object inspired by the giraffe-- a teapot and heater stand from c. 1827. In the collection of the Musée Carnavalet.

These are just a few of the hundreds of objects and fashion trends attributed to the giraffe. However, the story of this fashionable giraffe has a rather sad ending. As fads do, la mode à la girafe quickly passed away and newer sensations took its place. After the initial excitement of seeing such an exotic animal, most forgot about the giraffe and few came to visit her at the Jardin de Plantes. By 1830 she had completely faded into obscurity. She died in 1845.

Further Reading:

Allin, Michael. Zarafa: A Giraffe's True Story, from Deep in Africa to the Heart of Paris. New York: Walker and Company, 1998.

Majer, Michele. "La Mode à la girafe: Fashion, Culture, and Politics in Bourbon Restoration France." Studies in Decorative Arts 17:1 (Fall-Winter 2009-10): 123-161.

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