Katy Kelleher | Longreads | December 2018 | 14 minutes (3,822 words)

In the Ugly History of Beautiful Things, Katy Kelleher shines a light on the dark underbellies of the things we adorn ourselves with. Previously: the grisly side of perfume.

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In 2013, PETA released a video that changed the fashion industry. The footage, which is still available on YouTube, showed a man sitting on a bench, straddling a white rabbit that had been stretched out lengthwise and strapped down. It’s an angora, a rabbit breed prized for its long, thick, hollow-haired coat. The man begins to grab fistfuls of the rabbit’s soft fur and pulls it quickly, jerkily, tearing it from the rabbit’s flesh. As the video continues, you see more clips of rabbits being stripped naked to their pink skin. They look flayed and raw, and they cry out in pain. When I watched the video, the animal bleats disturbed my two dogs, who began running in circles, sniffing the air and wondering. I’m not sure if they were inspired to hunt, or if they could just smell my distress.

“They were the screams heard round the world,” proclaimed the the animal rights organization’s website. The copy accompanying the video is triumphant, notwithstanding the stomach-churning nature of the clip: “When PETA Asia released its shocking eyewitness video footage showing that workers violently rip the fur out of angora rabbits’ writhing bodies, customers shared the video widely, vowed never to wear angora again.” After this PR disaster, retailers began pledging publicly to stop using angora wool in their products. International clothing giants like H&M, ASOS, and Gap, Inc. informed customers that they would no longer offer angora products, while unsurprisingly remaining silent on their use of exploitative labor practices to produce their disposable fashion. The pain of sweet, fluffy bunnies was a bridge too far.

I’m glad corporations are being pressured to reexamine their policies around animal products. It is disturbing to witness animal suffering, and the rabbits’ squished and feral faces, their bright-white fur, their long ears, their pink mouths — all these characteristics makes it somehow worse. It doesn’t help that I had a collection of stuffed rabbits as a child; I liked to sleep surrounded by a ring of watchful plastic eyes and alert velvety ears. Like most children, I was a proto-animist, and in my primitive system of worship rabbits reigned supreme.

And yet: I own an angora sweater, made from real rabbit hair fibers. It is silky soft, and when I wear it, the appearance of my torso is elevated by the halo effect (called a “bloom”) created by thousands of tiny fibers poking through the tight weave. It makes me look a bit fuzzy and faded, like a ’60s movie star seen through a Vaseline lens. It is so soft, so light, so beautiful. I didn’t know when I bought it that angora wool came from mistreated rabbits. But I could have guessed. Most lovely things have a higher moral price tag than we like to admit.

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The use of wool in clothing may date as far back as 7000 BCE. For much of that history, fabrics and knits were made from fibers harvested from sheep or goats. In 1993, archeologists found a piece of linen cloth from a site in Cayonu, Turkey. “It is not certain when people first began to weave animal fibers,” wrote John Noble Wilford for the New York Times. “It is likely that wool would have been used for weaving almost as early as flax was, but wool decays more readily than linen and so is not preserved in early archeological sites.” We know that humans had domesticated sheep and goats by this time, and it is believed that our distant ancestors were herding them for food. It is possible, and perhaps likely, that early humans were creating woven textiles from animal products some 7,000 years before Jesus Christ walked the earth.

Wool is a very sensible material, and not a very sexy one. It is naturally insulating, water-repellant, and durable. Rabbit hair sounds far more exotic than wool, and its function is slightly more decorative than sheep’s fleece. But “wool” is a bit of an umbrella term. Sometimes it refers to rabbit hair, sometimes it refers to lamb’s wool (sheared from the first coat of a newborn) and sometimes it refers to fleece from a goat or an alpaca. Sheep’s wool is the most common type, and even then it’s often broken down by providence. No matter what animal it comes from, one of the most important ways of gauging wool’s worth is by measuring the diameter of the follicle. A Shetland sheep has hair that is 23 microns thick, on average. Goat fiber under 19 microns thick is considered “cashmere” (sometimes this comes from Cashmere goats, but not always). Rabbit hair is even finer than this, and rings in at 11 microns.

I didn’t know when I bought it that angora wool came from mistreated rabbits. But I could have guessed. Most lovely things have a higher moral price tag than we like to admit.

Aside from its minuscule size, rabbit hair has other textural benefits. The fibers that come from angora rabbits are long, silky, and hollow. The scales on their surface form an interlocking chevron pattern, which makes them both harder to work with (less friction to grip other fibers) and more desirable for certain garments (the aforementioned halo effect, made when the fibers slip from their weave). Most importantly, angora feels different from wool. Anyone who has purchased an Icelandic wool sweater knows that, while warm and cozy and oh-so-hygge, thick-knit wool sweaters are itchy against naked skin and smelly when wet. Angora sweaters are fluffy and lightweight. A lobsterman pulls on a thick sheep’s wool sweater; a Hollywood ingénue dons an angora knit.

While weaving wool dates back to early civilization, sweaters didn’t begin to show up on the torso-cladding scene until the 15th century. The earliest knitted wool shirts came from the British islands of Jersey and Guernsey. The sweater as we know it was most likely invented by an anonymous fisherman’s wife, seeking to keep her breadwinner alive as he braved the freezing waters of the English Channel day in and day out, and for centuries it was most closely associated with workingmen and soldiers. Women, particularly high-class, fashionable women, did not wear sweaters. While there are examples of creatively patterned and aesthetically pleasing sweaters from before the Industrial Revolution, these pieces were attractive in the same way that folk art is beautiful: They look cool today, but weren’t considered chic or classy by the tastemakers of the day.

The sweater as a fashion item was Coco Chanel’s creation. The French designer famously MacGyvered the first modern women’s cardigan prototype out of a men’s crew-neck sweater. The neck hole was too tight to pull comfortably over her head, so Chanel took a pair of scissors and cut it down the front. She added ribbons to hide the raw edges of the wool, and began wearing it out and about. People went crazy for the new style, and soon everyone was copying Chanel.

The history of angora in fashion is inextricably linked to the history of the sweater. Angora sweaters became popular in the 1920s, more than 200 years after European sailors first brought angora rabbits from Turkey, where the breed originates, to France, where they were raised as livestock and kept as pets. While many kept rabbits for their meat and fur, angora rabbits were also popular companions for 18th century aristocracy. Legend has it that Marie Antoinette kept a fluff-themed menagerie, and various blogs have proclaimed her fondness for Maine Coon cats, Bichons, and white rabbits. (Historians have only been able to document the existence of several Papillons, so the rest may stem from Sofia Coppola’s 2006 pastel-washed movie.) For the most part, angora rabbits in Europe and America were slaughtered for their pelts rather than sheared for their fibers, but that changed around the turn of the 20th century, when sweaters became “a fashion item for women” in a way that they never had been before, according to fashion historian Jonathan Walford. In an email, he wrote:

As women became more active in sporting activities—hiking, cycling, swimming, even hockey—the sports sweater became a favorite, and quickly moved into fashion, most often as a cardigan, The Great War promoted the art of knitting as a way for civilian women to do their part by making soldiers and sailors mittens, scarves, sweaters, and balaclavas.

Furthermore, the 1920s saw a shift in women’s knitwear toward lightweight, clingy styles designed to accentuate curves, a trend that Walford says came in response to the “otherwise shapeless silhouette” of the era. The flapper dress hung loose over breasts and thighs, obscuring the waist and turning the body into a column of fabric. A well-chosen sweater could combat this. Sweaters looked more fresh and modern than nipped-waist dresses or corsets, and aligned neatly with the androgynous appeal of the flapper look.

By the 1930s and 1940s, angora was more popular than it had ever been before. It was recognized for its silky beauty and its utility, and prized for its thermal qualities and its tactile appeal. The fiber was particularly popular with two influential groups of the 20th century: Hollywood starlets and Nazi officers.

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The term “sweater girl” described a particular type of Lolita-esque sexpot. The sweater girl was a study in contradictions — or the epitome of the Madonna/whore dichotomy — who was simultaneously big-breasted and womanly, and innocent and childlike. Hollywood publicists first coined the phrase to describe Lana Turner, who played a sweater-wearing teenage murder victim in the 1937 film They Won’t Forget. In the movie, 16-year-old Turner is bombshell beautiful, and her tight sweaters (paired with equally tight pencil skirts) accentuate her hourglass waist and prominent breasts. In Life magazine, screenwriter Niven Busch wrote that Turner “didn’t have to act” much, for her scene “consisted mostly of 75-ft. dolly shot of her as she hurried along a crowded street in a small Southern town. … She just walked along wearing a tight-fitting sweater. There was nothing prurient about the shot but the male U.S. found it more stimulating than a year’s quote of chorus girls dancing in wampum loin cloths.”

This was also an era when “breast fetishism” was on the rise. Women had begun wearing pointy “bullet bras” that exaggerated their shapes, turning naturally pillowy and pliable breasts into hard conical hills. A sweater paired with a bullet bra was the perfect combination of hard and soft, innocent and sexy, curvy and contained. Even though Turner was underage, it seemed permissible to lust after her, for she embodied a certain wholesome sex appeal that spoke to mid-century American audiences. “Maybe [Turner] didn’t look like the average high-school girl,” wrote Busch, “but she looked like what the average high-school boy wished the average high-school girl looked like.” Turner’s slightly risqué look resonated with women as well as men. There was a simplicity to this fashion — it was easy to replicate the sweater girl look. It was accessible and utterly American. (Busch also notes that the only person “profoundly shocked” by the audience reaction to her body was Turner herself, who began to “bitterly oppose” her sweater girl name, and for the years following her debut film, the starlet refused to wear tight-fitting knits on camera.) Following Turner’s splash as a glamorous dead girl, starlets like Jayne Mansfield and Jane Russell began adopting the style and by the 1940s and 1950s, the sweater girl was one of the more persistent tropes in American media. Walford notes that director and artist Ed Wood “always” wore angora as part of his drag. “Fit would be part of the reason,” Walford says, “because they would fit his male form better than women’s blouses, but touch was also at play. Angora has a sensual touch, like silk, camel hair, leather or rubber — all materials that have fetishistic followers.”

While wide-eyed actress in Hollywood were squeezing their torsos into fuzzy tops, soldiers in Germany had begun a focused series of experiments designed to test the long-term viability of raising angora rabbits for their hollow hairs. Angora appealed to the Nazis for several reasons. First, it had a sense of glamor to it — the fabric was associated with luxurious evening wear, and the Nazis were acutely aware of the importance of presentation and fashion (hence the continued fascination with “Nazi chic”). Secondly, angora was ideal for lining pilot’s jackets, since it was thin, water-repellant, warm, and unlikely to cause itching in the cold cockpit. They also planned to use it for sweaters, socks, and underwear — all garments that would lie close to the body and keep soldiers warm and dry while they were trekking across the Ukrainian steppe to wage war on the Eastern Front. In 1943, SS officers created a photo album to document the work they were doing at Dachau. The volume contains approximately 150 mounted photographs, maps, charts, and hand-lettered texts. There are pictures of rabbit hutches (which Stassa Edwards at Atlas Obscura calls “sanitary, modern”), descriptions of their feeding schedule, and instructions for feeding, shearing, and grooming rabbits. This album was “some of the last remaining evidence of Project Angora,” Edwards writes, “an obscure program begun by Himmler for the purpose of producing enough angora wool to make warm clothes for several branches of the German military.”

By 1943, Project Angora had been underway for two years, and workers had bred nearly 65,000 rabbits and created more than 10,000 pounds of wool. Few examples of these military textiles survive. But Project Angora isn’t notable for its material output or its influence on clothing or fashion, but rather the cleanliness of its wards, the purported humanity of it all. The rabbits housed at German concentration camps were kept in large hutches. They were fed well and petted routinely. SS officers bonded with the animals. Singrid Schultz, the reporter who uncovered the notorious photo album in 1945, described the cruel irony of the project:

In the same compound where 800 human beings would be packed into barracks that were barely adequate for 200, the rabbits lived in luxury in their own elegant hutches. In Buchenwald, where tens of thousands of human beings were starved to death, rabbits enjoyed scientifically prepared meals. The SS men who whipped, tortured, and killed prisoners saw to it that the rabbits enjoyed loving care.

The Nazis didn’t see humans as equivalent to rabbits or rats or other mammalian creatures — they had sympathy for animals and valued their welfare. That was part of their mythology; it was important to Himmler that the German people viewed the Nazis as progressive when it came to animal rights. “The thesis that viewing others as objects or animals enables our very worst conduct would seem to explain a great deal,” wrote Paul Bloom in the New Yorker. “Yet there’s reason to think that it’s almost the opposite of the truth.” According to Bloom, the focus on shame and humiliation reveals that Nazis (and other racist groups) don’t use the language of the zoo to excuse their actions or annul their guilt. They don’t imagine people as animals so that they can hurt them more easily. Rather, their tortures are explicitly designed to highlight their humanity. “The sadism of treating human beings like vermin lies precisely in the recognition that they are not,” Bloom argues.  

The very same Nazis who were torturing and brutalizing the Jewish people in the camps were also posing with rabbits, brushing them, and snuggling them. They were capable of offering mercy to living creatures, and they were equally capable of acting out their sadistic fantasies on other people. At Project Angora, sadism lived next-door to tenderness, and I can’t think of anything uglier than that.

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On a rainy Sunday in July, I visited the Kerfluffle Fiber Farm in Lebanon, Maine, which raises alpacas, sheep, and angora rabbits for their wool. I walked among the rabbit hutches and held a Satin angora rabbit named Sweetie Pie and felt her small heart beat against my fingertips. Unlike the farms in the PETA videos, at Kerfluffle, the rabbits are not squished into cages to tremble and squeal and wait for their next brutal shearing. Yes, they live in cages, they tremble, and they are (sometimes) sheared. But though the same words can be used to describe their basic conditions, the substance is completely different. The family farm is sprawling and green, with children’s toys strewn about the lawn. The rabbit cages are housed in an old horse stall in the wooden barn. Each rabbit has enough space to move around — they can hop and play and defecate and feed without contaminating their food or making a mess of their space. The rabbits are clean and well-groomed. I don’t see any oozing sores or open wounds and the hair is never ripped from their bodies, but harvested through brushing. I hear no screams, only the sounds of geese cackling and goats bleating. As I stroke my hands down the back of the angora, I can feel how easily this fur could be removed. There is no need to yank — it comes out naturally, long white fibers sticking to my sweaty palms before blowing away on the humid summer wind like dandelion seeds.

Mandy McDonald, certified fiber sorter and owner of Kerfluffle Farm, began keeping rabbits years ago. She was a lifelong knitter on a continual quest to find the best yarn, eventually choosing to raise angora rabbits because they were more affordable than alpacas or sheep. But even though it’s possible for a dedicated knitter to raise enough rabbits to make a scarf, it is difficult to reproduce this type of humane animal husbandry on a large scale. “New England used to be the mecca of textile manufacturing in the early 1900s,” McDonald says. “But now we don’t have the type of economy where we could raise our own fiber and make a living off it.” It’s impossible to compete with the fibers from overseas, though McDonald does manage to sell some of her knitted wares, like baby bonnets and scarves. “They’re heirloom gifts,” she says.

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“Heirloom gifts” is a sweet and marketable way to phrase it. In reality, angora fur may simply be “incompatible with industrial capitalism,” writes Tansy Hoskins for The Guardian. “In this sense it should be a scarce fabric, rather than something cheaply produced.” She notes that the Chinese angora farms like the ones documented by PETA have all but killed angora production in the U.K. Out of the 3,000 tons produced each year, 90 percent comes from China, according to the International Wool Textile Association. And while there’s growing support for animal welfare laws in China, there are still few laws protecting animal rights and no nationwide laws that explicitly prohibit mistreatment of animals.

But sales of angora wool have decreased since PETA released its disturbing video. In 2010, China exported $23 million worth of angora rabbit wool, according to the International Trade Center, and in 2015 that number was down to $4.3 million. The Business of Fashion also reports that “countries with cottage industries in angora — including the U.K., France, Italy, and Germany — have also seen exports decrease.” Italy, a major angora consumer thanks to their famous fabric mills, has seen a 77 percent decrease in angora imports.

There are many stories about brands pledging not to use rabbit fur but very little information available about how the Chinese angora industry has changed  — which leads me to suspect that it hasn’t. Instead of buying pricier humane angora, retailers have simply stopped using the stuff altogether; it’s simply too expensive for cheap-chic spots like H&M and too obscure to be a true status material for higher-end brands. It’s also worth noting that China isn’t alone in their cruel treatment of these skittish creatures. In 2016, a French animal rights group went undercover at an undisclosed location in France to document similarly inhumane treatment of angora rabbits, including animals that had been exposed to extreme temperatures and plucked so indiscriminately that even their genitals were covered with painful scabs.

In order to harvest angora on a large scale and make it affordable for the average person, it seems inevitable that animals will be harmed. Raising angora the way that McDonald does would drive the prices up so high that few could afford the fabric. A set of mittens from Ambika, a New York–based independent designer whose website touts their humane treatment of rabbits and their solar-powered facilities, will set you back $260, and a cardigan-style coat costs a cool $2,175. The jacket is gorgeous, a white frothy confection made from 100 percent angora rabbit fiber, but the price tag means that this item will forever be beyond my reach. (There has never been a large angora industry in the United States, though plenty of farmers raise angora rabbits for fun or profit. People eat the meat, harvest the fur, and even breed them as show animals; the truly dedicated breeders head to Palmyra, New York, for the National Angora Show, an event the New York Times calls the “Westminster for Angoras.”)

Despite the fact that there are few economic benefits of raising rabbits, McDonald continues to raise fiber animals, including alpaca and sheep, because she loves the act of caretaking. “It makes me feel alive to nurture an animal,” she says. “And I love soft and fluffy things.” Angora is soft and silky, luscious and sensual. It’s also the product of an adorable animal, a creature that looks like an animated cloud puff. A contradiction in a sweater.

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Rabbits are cute, and like most cute things, they make us want to hold them close and squeeze them, protect them from harm, bond with them. This is a visceral emotion, one that can look a little like love if you stand at a great enough distance. Even a Nazi can recognize the cuteness of an angora rabbit, stroke its wispy hair, feel its soft pink paws, and even a Nazi can think, somewhere in his monstrous mind, that this is a creature that does not deserve to suffer. This impulse can look like kindness — but it isn’t, not truly. Kindness and compassion are more complicated than protectiveness, and harder to embody. When we boycott sweaters made from abused animals yet fail to extend the same outrage to clothes made in sweatshop conditions, we’ve falling prey to the dark side of cuteness. When we break women down into individual pieces, breasts and arms and fluffy torsos, we fail to see the whole human, the sensitive teenager behind the sexpot. Cuteness narrows our vision, making it difficult to see the greater picture. Pull a thread long enough and the entire system unravels, revealing the underground abuse woven into our wardrobes and culture.

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Katy Kelleher is a freelance writer and editor based in Maine whose work has appeared in Art New England, Boston magazine, The Paris Review, The Hairpin, Eater, Jezebel, and The New York Times Magazine. She’s also the author of the book Handcrafted Maine.

Editor: Michelle Weber
Factchecker: Sam Schuyler
Copyeditor: Jacob Z. Gross