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Fashion History Lesson: The Connection Between Fashion, Felines and Females

History proves fashion's obsession with cats is more than a passing trend.
Photo: Imaxtree

Photo: Imaxtree

Throughout 2016, countless publications have touted that "fashion is mad for cats" and "the feline trend is here to stay." Based on the heavy use of cat motifs in a number of recent collections by brands that include Stella McCartney, Marc Jacobs, Gucci and Loewe, that seems like a pretty safe bet. Like the ubiquitous "tumblr pink," there seems to be something so alluring about cats to millennial women that the fashion industry can't stop using them as marketing bait to peddle everything from luxury handbags to drugstore mascara. Despite being devoted members of fashion's "cat cult" ourselves, we've even lamented the spread of gimmicky cat-themed products only to find new ones that strike our (cat) fancy, from Gucci sweaters to legendary cat-lover Grace Coddington's feline-shaped perfume.

Of course, the connection between fashion and felines started long before Karl Lagerfeld made his furry companion Choupette into a bona-fide style icon. Their physical attributes and nimble nature have inspired such terms as cat eyes, kitten heels, pussy bows and catwalks. But why does the symbolism of cats (and not dogs) work so well with fashion? Is it their independent spirit? Their playful personalities? The answer may be simple: both cats and fashion have been stereotypically associated with women. It's undeniable that there are some deep historical (and psychological) connections between females and felines, so we've decided to take a look at them in order to better understand why a kitty-shaped purse is like catnip to us.

Numerous cultures from across the globe have venerated cats due to their association with powerful goddesses and magical powers. The Ancient Egyptians are best known for their feline devotion, with records indicating that they enforced the death penalty on any person who was charged with killing a cat. One of their primary deities was the goddess Bastet, who was commonly depicted as a woman with a cat's head. As the protector of the home, women's secrets, childbirth, fertility, and the guardian against evil spirits and disease, it's clear why the Egyptians associated cats with women and incorporated their likeness into amulets and other pieces of art. The Hindu folk goddess Sashti served a similar role to Bastet, and was often depicted nursing infants while riding on top of a cat. Chinese, Norse, Japanese and Celtic groups have also incorporated cat imagery into their mythologies at some point. [3]

Unfortunately, felines didn't enjoy such high esteem in many European nations throughout much of the middle ages, when their association with pagan symbols and witchcraft caused them to be demonized and killed in disturbingly large numbers. Queen Victoria helped bring cats back into vogue in the 1800s when she adopted two Blue Persians and had them treated as members of her royal court. From then on, cats became more closely associated with being lovable house pets instead of bad omens and pest control, which led them to be used in a variety of fashion-related marketing as early as the late 19th century.

Although there have been scientific studies that support the idea that women have a special bond with cats, popular culture has played the biggest role in reinforcing this connection, thanks in part to the stereotypical "crazy cat ladies" and witches shown in films and television. Back in the early 1900s, cats were a common symbol in suffragette propaganda, first used by the anti-suffrage movement to make women seem silly, domesticated and unfit for political engagement, but later re-appropriated by the suffragettes to represent them as ferocious fighters for their cause. Cats were also considered somewhat symbolic of the women's rights and lesbian rights movements of the 1960s and 1970s, which makes sense considering their fiercely independent nature and relationship to goddess-worshipping cultures. What symbol could better represent a woman's command of when she wants to be alone and when she wants to be touched? These behavioral characteristics are similar to what relates cats to luxury consumers. According to Patrice Farameh, author of "Luxury for Cats," "Cats share many traits with the high-end luxury consumer: finicky discretion, cool independence and controlled behavior." [2] These traits, combined with the individualism and mystique of felines, is what makes them such a perfect representation of what many perceive to be "chic."

But all of these historical examples and behavioral studies don't fully explain why millennial women in particular appear to be so attracted to cat motifs and themed objects. Some theorists believe that cats are physically attractive to women because they resemble infant faces with their round heads, big eyes and wide foreheads, which can supposedly have a psychological effect in women of childbearing age. [1] (Their humanlike qualities can also explain why we enjoy dressing them up in clothes to create countless internet memes, which, as a matter of fact, is something that people have been doing long before computers were even invented.) Most importantly, and whether or not you want to admit that cats are adorable (oh hi, dog lovers), it's hard to deny that the physical features of felines do lend themselves to stylization quite easily, making them a simple way to infuse novelty into fashion. Adding pointy ears and whiskers to just about anything can immediately conjure up the image of a cat (think Charlotte Olympia's kitty collection), which can be used to trigger emotional attachment in feline-loving consumers. Unfortunately for man's best friend, this would be slightly more difficult to do with the physical features of dogs. (Can you imagine Ariana Grande strutting around in floppy dog ears? Didn't think so.)

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Photo: Shu Uemura

Photo: Shu Uemura

As we predicted back in March, fashion's obsession with cats is never going away, and history seems to prove that. According to Jennifer Rice, fashion archivist and curator of the exhibition "In a Feline Fashion," hosted by New York's Algonquin Hotel, which famously also holds an annual cat fashion show, "With a cat you can connote and thus market and appeal to cuteness, sexiness, coyness, independence and ferocity — a wide spectrum of characteristics that could attract a wide spectrum of customers." Considering that, fashion's obsession with cats seems rather logical, or, dare we say, purrfect?

Sources not linked:

[1] Bradshaw, John. Cat Sense: How the New Feline Science Can Make You a Better Friend to Your Pet. New York: Basic Books, 2013.

[2] Farameh, Patrice. Luxury for Cats. Kempen, New York: teNeues, 2008.

[3] Jordan, Michael. Encyclopedia of Gods: Over 2,500 Deities of the World. New York: Facts on File, 1993.

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