Putting on the Dog: The Animal Origins of What We Wear

Putting on the Dog: The Animal Origins of What We Wear

by Melissa Kwasny


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In Putting on the Dog, Melissa Kwasny explores the age-old relationship between humans and the animals that have provided us with our clothing: leather, wool, silk, feathers, pearls, and fur. From silkworms grown on plantations in Japan and mink farms off Denmark’s western coast to pearl beds in the Sea of Cortés, Kwasny offers firsthand accounts of traditions and manufacturing methods—aboriginal to modern—and descriptions of the marvel and miracle of the clothing itself. What emerges is a fresh look at the cultural history of fashion.

Kwasny travels the globe to visit both large-scale industrial manufacturers and community-based, often subsistence production by people who have spent their lives working with animals—farmers, ranchers, tanners, weavers, shepherds, and artisans. She examines historical rates of consumption and efforts to move toward sustainability, all while considering animal welfare, worker safety, environmental health, product accountability, and respect for indigenous knowledge and practice.

At its heart, Putting on the Dog demonstrates how what we choose to wear represents one of our most profound engagements with the natural world.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781595348647
Publisher: Trinity University Press
Publication date: 04/17/2019
Pages: 352
Product dimensions: 6.10(w) x 9.00(h) x 1.10(d)

About the Author

Melissa Kwasny is the author of six collections of poems, including Pictograph, Reading Novalis in Montana, and The Nine Senses, which contains a series of poems that won the Poetry Society of America's 2008 Cecil Hemly Award. A portion of Pictograph received the Alice Fay Di Castagnola Award, judged by Ed Roberson. Kwasny is also the author of Earth Recitals: Essays on Image and Vision and is the editor of multiple anthologies, including Toward the Open Field: Poets on the Art of Poetry 1800–1950 and, with M. L. Smoker, I Go to the Ruined Place: Contemporary Poems in Defense of Global Human Rights. Her work has appeared in Ploughshares, the Boston Review, and The Arcadia Project: North American Postmodern Pastoral. She lives in the Elkhorn Mountains outside of Jefferson City, Montana.

Read an Excerpt


To be draped in the spun cocoons of silkworms, or warmed by piles of feathery down, to slip on sweaters, coats, hats, and gloves woven from the wool of sheep grazing in high pastures, to avoid rocks and thorns and cold by walking in the tanned and beaded skins of deer, elk, caribou, reindeer—or spike heels made of alligator hide by Manolo Blahnik—is to be human. Though we may clothe our cats or dogs, even horses, Homo sapiens is the only species that clothes itself. According to the Oxford Dictionary, clothe means 1.) To put clothes on, 2.) To provide someone with clothes, and 3.) To endow with particular qualities,
as in “you have been clothed with power from on high.” Not included in these definitions, it seems to me, is a missing subject. Who is clothing whom? In many cases, throughout human history, that subject is an animal. As well, between the noun clothing and the verb to clothe lies a whole universe of animal-human relations, of processes and trade, of traditional use and modern innovation, of cultural symbol and indigenous notions of reciprocity; in effect, who has clothed us reflects the variety and evolving nature of human consciousness itself, in particular, how we think and feel about what we wear and where it comes from.

We are born naked, featherless and furless. And the animals, which were here when we arrived, have for millennia provided us with their beauty and protection. Putting on the Dog focuses on this age-old relationship, bringing to light practices many of us are only dimly aware of, such as the seeding of pearls inside an oyster or the unraveling of a mile-long silk thread from a cocoon, and providing stories, both physical and metaphysical, about the historic and prehistoric use of animals as clothing. The book is divided into six sections: leather, including fleece and rawhide; wool, including cashmere, angora, and mohair; silk; feathers, including down; pearls; and fur. For each chapter, I traveled to the animals—to southwestern Alaska’s tundra, to sheep ranches atop Montana’s continental divide, to silkworm farms in northern Japan and mink farms on Denmark’s western coast, and to the pearl beds in the Sea of Cortés. I met people who spend their lives working with animals and the materials they provide—farmers, ranchers, tanners, weavers, shepherds, artisans. One goal has been to investigate the role of clothing in cultural history, including how different peoples have imagined specific animals and their archetypal connection to them. The way we dress represents one of our most profound engagements with the natural world.

What physical properties of the feather make it such a fine insulator? Which wools are best for heat, cold, or dampness? How ancient is the diving for pearls? What are the steps involved in transforming the Black Angus pasturing in the Boulder Valley down the road from where I live into the green leather bag I carry to work? People used to know.

In her essay “Fragments of the Heavens,” Catherine Howard tells the story of an anthropologist in Brazil trying to purchase a marvelous feather headdress from the Waiwai. Before he could take possession of it, he had to listen to five hours of stories about how each feather and animal part was obtained. When he asked the villagers to skip that part, they couldn’t. Every object had to be given with the story of “where its raw materials came from, how it was made, through whose hands it passed, when it was used.” To not do so—to not impart those stories—disrespected not only the animal but all the knowledge and skill that went into producing the desired garment.

A friend shows me her daughter’s tortoise shell bracelets, plastic-like in their sheen and flexibility. What species of tortoise? She hadn’t thought about it. Neither would I have before the writing of this book. She shows me her great-grandmother’s ivory bracelet, which is painted with a scene from royal India. Ivory, such a beautiful word, smooth in the mouth like its namesake, yet procured by the slaughter of walrus, elephant, or mammoth. In Medieval Europe, traders charged large sums for bits and pieces of the tusk of the narwhal—a small Arctic whale with an ivory tusk “spiraling out of its forehead”—which they misrepresented as pieces of the unicorn’s horn. Christians wore them as talismans to protect them from illness and evil spells. Likewise, trade, mass production, and an increasing distance from wild and rural life have obscured our relationship to the origins of much of our clothing, whether they are bone ornaments or the dyed fur trim on our parkas.

Putting on the Dog is not an anti-hunting or anti-trapping or anti-farming book. Although I take into serious account arguments made by animal rights groups, I am more concerned here with the ways that people—farmers, ranchers, hunters—work with animals and what that has to teach the rest of us in a broader sense about our place in nature. In a time when our ties to the earth are unraveling, to the greater detriment of us all, it seems imperative to find new ways of retying the knots. Animal rights and animal welfare, worker safety and environmental health, a return to indigenous knowledge and practices: just as consumer awareness of these things has driven change in the food industry, it is fueling a growing slow fashion movement. Traceable down, which guarantees that the feathers in our winter coats were not plucked live from the geese who grew them, sustainable pearl farms that increase the population of fish and oysters in an ecosystem, buying local and from companies, sometimes artisanal, that take animal welfare seriously, even relearning how to care for our clothing so that it is valued and lasts—these practices, as I examine in this book, are having a profound effect on both human and non-human lives.

“Just about everything we use is the result of another’s life, but that simple reality is rarely acknowledged in our society,” claims Potawatomi writer Robin Wall Kimmerer. If one is against eating or using animal products altogether, practices such as predator-friendly ranching or indigenous harvesting of seals will not be change enough. However, educating ourselves about what we do use often provides an incentive—moral, spiritual, and yes, sometimes financial—to preserving other species. Putting on the Dog explores the life and death of animals—sheep, goats, rabbits, cows, seals, squirrels, fish, worms, oysters, mink, fox, coyote, wolf, geese, ducks, chinchilla, and many more.

At its heart, of course, the book brings to life the clothing itself, the marvel and miracle of it: silk kimonos dyed in a soup of red cedar bark, pearls cast in the hues of water itself, scooped from the depths of the sea, lamb’s wool, eiderdown, the ruff of a winter parka sewn of wolf skin. Clothing is essential, essential to our need for beauty as well as our need for shelter. Men in the Arctic Circle who wore walrus tusks pierced through their jaws did so for the same reason contemporary women wear pearls around their necks: to borrow some of the power, mystery, and color of the world around us. The Brazilian Waiwai used feathers to distinguish themselves as a species. In turn, in their mythologies, animals who transformed into humans “were considered ugly until they put on clothes painted with animal designs representing themselves.”

Putting on the dog is a phrase that means someone is donning fancy clothes for a special occasion. Although it is a relatively recent American term—according to one source, it refers to lap dogs wealthy people brought out to show off in the nineteenth century, and to another, the stiff “dog collar” shirts young men wore for formal occasions at Yale—it is ancient in practice. Coyotes, wolves, minks, foxes: the clothing that animals provide us with are luxury products, are precious, given that they often require the loss of an animal’s life, and given the hours and care of those humans who have hunted it, raised it, or crafted painstakingly elegant and practical things from it. In my research, I learned about Yup’ik women in the Arctic, who say they wear their furs, which they have sewn and decorated so masterfully, out into the world so that the animals can see them. Few of us make our own clothing anymore; the origins of our clothing, in fact, are many times removed from the product we buy at the mall or order online. Most of us live in urban areas far from wild or domesticated animals. Yet that obscurity, in the end, is not a reality. The animals, the farmers and hunters, the makers of our clothing are all around us. They do see us, in the sense that what we wear directly affects their lives. To see them is to bring us closer in the circle.

Table of Contents


Chapter One: Leather
Chapter Two: Wool
Chapter Three: Silk
Chapter Four: Feathers
Chapter Five: Pearls
Chapter Six: Fur


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