Pickman on Cowie, 'Victims of Fashion: Animal Commodities in Victorian Britain'

Helen Louise Cowie
Sarah Pickman

Helen Louise Cowie. Victims of Fashion: Animal Commodities in Victorian Britain. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2022. 300 pp. $39.99 (e-book), ISBN 978-1-108-86126-7; $39.99 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-108-49517-2.

Reviewed by Sarah Pickman (Yale University) Published on H-Environment (February, 2023) Commissioned by Daniella McCahey (Texas Tech University)

Printable Version: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=57668

Water waste.[1] Microplastics shed from synthetic fabrics.[2] Dye runoff in rivers and streams.[3] In recent years, journalists and activists have turned their attention to the environmental degradation caused by the global fashion industry, especially by manufacturers of trendy “fast fashion.” Yet as Helen Louise Cowie’s Victims of Fashion demonstrates, these concerns that fashion trends destroy natural resources are hardly new and certainly not trivial. In her most recent book Cowie, a professor of history at the University of York, traces six different animal-based commodities that were hugely popular in Victorian Britain, showing how each was sourced, marketed, and consumed. Far from mere fads, these items were significant sites for the deployment of scientific expertise and debate, both in terms of how to best acquire and process these materials and how to preserve the animal populations that produced these resources. “The successful procurement and manufacture of luxury animal products,” Cowie writes, “required the knowledge and expertise of a wide range of people and operated, in many cases, on a truly global level” (p. 8). Cowie uses a variety of archival sources, especially trade journals, newspapers and fashion magazines, and the publications of animal welfare organizations in her case studies. The result is a book that deftly brings together histories of science and technology, environmental history, and commodity studies to show how consumer tastes have had, and continue to have, huge ecological and political consequences.

Cowie’s first chapter examines the late Victorian craze for feathers for women’s clothing and accessories. While feathers were extremely popular with consumers, especially ostrich and egret feathers (which could only be sourced by killing the egrets), this fad also had loud detractors, who lobbied for laws banning feather imports to Britain and tried to persuade consumers to abandon feathered accessories. Notably, feather trade representatives countered these criticisms by claiming that they could source feathers responsibly by, for example, only gathering feathers that egrets had dropped or by fabricating feather farms where none existed. (Similar to today’s fashion brands that claim sustainable sourcing, these claims provided reassurance to consumers but could be hard to independently substantiate.) Chapter 2 looks at sealskin, which was widely prized in Britain for winter outerwear, especially after a number of technological innovations made the skins easier to commercially process. But seals did not respect international borders, which caused diplomatic tensions between countries that benefited from sealing, such as the United States and British-controlled Canada. These same countries also deployed their own scientists to try to study seal populations and assess how best to sustain their numbers, with an eye toward continued profit. This chapter also touches on the role of Indigenous Arctic labor in the commercial seal harvest, although it would have been interesting to read more on Inuit or Aleutian relationships to or understanding of the seals themselves. These communities understood humans to have a far more reciprocal relationship with seals than did white settlers, who viewed the animals only as another resource to exploit as far as possible.

Chapter 3 examines British demand for ivory, which threatened African elephant populations in the nineteenth century. Due to its malleability, manufacturers used ivory for everything from cane handles to billiard balls to piano keys. Some scientists attempted to solve the problem of diminished elephant populations by developing lab-made substitutes for ivory, but these initially failed to replicate ivory’s durability and plasticity. (It was not until around 1909 that Bakelite, the world’s first true plastic, became commercially available and began to supplant ivory.) At the same time, a number of scientists advocated taming African elephants to use as draught animals on colonial plantations or on exploratory expeditions, as a way of conserving the elephant populations and creating the conditions for breeding more elephants for their tusks. This was an intriguing, if ultimately fruitless, attempt to use the European craving for elephant ivory to further European colonialism in Africa.

The following chapter follows alpacas and alpaca wool. In this chapter, British discourse around acclimatization is most visible, as various actors attempted to breed alpacas in colonial Australia as a way of creating a sustainable source of wool for British mills. Indigenous communities are also visible in this chapter, especially Indigenous Andeans who maintained their own practices of alpaca cultivation and wool processing, and who were sometimes hired to care for the alpaca flocks of British settlers—while at the same time, having their own herding expertise minimized by British commentators. Chapter 5 examines four different sources of animal-derived ingredients used in popular perfumes—bear grease, ambergris, civet, and musk—with an emphasis on how British scientists, vendors, and consumers attempted to verify the quality and authenticity of these ingredients. The final chapter discusses “exotic” animals that were popular as pets among all Victorian social classes, especially African parrots and small monkeys. It provides an in-depth look at the exotic animal importation trade in nineteenth-century Britain, which supplied individual pet owners and commercial menageries. Cowie also writes poignantly about discussions between pet owners that took place in the pages of magazines like Animal World, which presented an emotional paradox: people who “loved their pets, but … were consciously or unconsciously encouraging a brutal trade that accounted for the importation of tens of thousands of exotic animals each year” under harrowing conditions (p. 214). An epilogue briefly discusses the current conservation status of the animals discussed in the book.

While the trajectories of each animal commodity differed somewhat, Cowie demonstrates that “all invited similar critiques and solutions” (p. 237). Among these were the efforts of concerned citizens to stunt trade by both passing laws and changing consumer habits, though both of these proved difficult. Even when laws were passed, they were difficult to enforce on the ground. Cowie also insightfully homes in on the gendered dimensions of many of these debates. Women were among the most prominent voices for animal welfare during this period, urging fellow women shoppers to abandon products that had been cruelly sourced from wild animals, advocating for new laws to protect animal populations, and trying to exercise their power as consumers to stop the trade in these materials. Yet women also received the most blame for cruel sourcing practices, especially from men who argued that women perpetuated these practices with their frivolous fashion tastes. Typically absent from this public blame was acknowledgement that men too purchased sealskin coats, wore musk cologne, and played billiards with ivory balls. And both women and men tried to appeal to women shoppers’ “innate” maternal instincts with stories of how the feather, skin, and fur trades left baby animals helpless without mothers to care for them.

Victims of Fashion is a terrific addition to a number of fields, including environmental history, history of technology, commodity studies, and histories of consumer culture. It uses a wide variety of archival sources to address a fascinating and interdisciplinary topic, and the individual chapters would also make excellent, concise reading assignments for students. I also appreciated that in embracing “fashion,” Cowie uses the term expansively to mean trends in object consumption and habits, rather than narrowly sticking to “fashion” as only indicating clothing. At the same time, I was surprised that the book does not engage more with relevant literature from dress history, especially work on other environmental hazards caused by Victorian clothing, though Cowie does cite Alison Matthews David’s 2015 Fashion Victims: The Dangers of Dress Past and Present. (Similar title, different but related subject matter!) I am sure that dress historians will find much of value in Cowie’s book, and bringing that body of scholarship even further into Victims of Fashion would have done even more to broaden the book’s interdisciplinary reach.

Though Cowie’s book is a study of nineteenth-century consumer culture, it raises questions that are no less relevant today: What is the ecological impact of consumer demand for natural materials? What are consumers’ responsibilities when it comes to the extraction of these materials? Should wild creatures and their habitats be preserved for their own sake, or only when doing so will benefit humans? I would highly recommend this book for scholars in history of science, environmental history, histories of consumption and dress, and anyone interested in questions of sustainability in a global context. When it comes to sustainable consumption, what exactly is being sustained, and for whose benefit?


[1]. Mike Scott, “Out of Fashion—The Hidden Cost of Clothing is a Water Pollution Crisis,” Forbes, September 19, 2020, https://www.forbes.com/sites/mikescott/2020/09/19/out-of-fashionthe-hidden-cost-of-clothing-is-a-water-pollution-crisis/?sh=7a7ce3c1589c.

[2]. Brian Resnick, “More Than Ever, Our Clothes Are Made of Plastic. Just Washing Them Can Pollute the Oceans,” Vox, January 11, 2019, https://www.vox.com/the-goods/2018/9/19/17800654/clothes-plastic-pollution-polyester-washing-machine.

[3]. Helen Regan, “Asian Rivers Are Turning Black. And Our Colorful Closets Are to Blame,” CNN, September 28, 2020, https://www.cnn.com/style/article/dyeing-pollution-fashion-intl-hnk-dst-sept/index.html#:~:text=The%20fashion%20industry%20uses%20around,involved%20in%20making%20our%20clothes.

Citation: Sarah Pickman. Review of Cowie, Helen Louise, Victims of Fashion: Animal Commodities in Victorian Britain. H-Environment, H-Net Reviews. February, 2023. URL: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=57668

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