In the year of the (fake) snake

If 2000 is any indicator, 21st century style is going to be all about showing skin -- and it doesn't even have to be your own.

Published October 19, 2000 3:41PM (EDT)

You wouldn't know it from looking at my wardrobe, but I love to read fashion magazines. They're my escape from reality. But lately, I've been avoiding my beloved Vogue because, inevitably, I come across a picture of some woman sheathed in reptile skins. I just can't seem to escape that Calvin Klein ad featuring a lissome brunet model wearing a dark brown skirt made of crocodile hide. Eww. All my girlie squeamishness comes up when I see that picture, but nothing makes my skin crawl more than contemplating clothes resembling snakeskin.

Now, I'm tolerant of spiders, rats and smelly dogs. Hell, I've even kissed a few frogs, but I know I'm not the only woman who shivers with revulsion at the thought of touching a snake. I don't suffer from ophidiophobia, but I'm sure many people do, especially women. Visit any zoo's snake house or pet store selling snakes and you'll find women walking around, shoulders hunched around their ears, noses wrinkled in pained disdain for the slithering creatures kept in those glass cases.

So I'm mystified as to why so many women actually want to wear clothing resembling snakeskin. Yet snakeskin has been printed on every imaginable surface this year -- pants, dresses, shoes, blouses, belts and jackets. I blame Gucci's Tom Ford. Not only did he introduce the python print on several dresses and pantsuits during his spring 2000 fashion show in September 1999, but he also prominently featured a python-printed halter dress in his spring 2000 campaign.

Soon fashion groupies like Gwyneth Paltrow and Cate Blanchett made public appearances in the dress and generated attention from the press. Now it seems like every size 0 starlet has tripped down a red carpet in stiletto heals wearing python-printed leather or pleather. It's disturbing. I'm reminded of an old cartoon gag featuring a zany skeleton chasing some desperate animal for its skin.

The masses have followed the starlets' example. This summer I noticed dozens and dozens of young women clad in faux python skin. I haven't seen so many walking snakes since my mother confiscated my video of the 1973 horror movie "Sssssss" -- the film in which Strother Martin transforms Dirk Benedict into a snake so that he can use him in a freak show (a career move Mickey Rourke might consider).

I've been pondering the deeper meaning of the snakeskin trend ever since I bolted from an ascending elevator to avoid riding 16 floors with a woman wearing a python-print skirt. I believe that fashion's embrace of snakeskin and other reptilian patterns is more than just a celebration of the tacky or outré. Therefore I've simultaneously channeled the spirits of fashion maven Diana Vreeland and anthropologist Margaret Mead to help me analyze the snakeskin-print trend.

Could it be that snakeskin fashion reflects a yearning for natural or ancestral covering in reaction to our increasingly techno-dominated culture? The snakeskin dress is just another manifestation of the "modern primitive" aesthetic in mainstream consciousness. Remember the vogue for tribal tattoos and piercings in the early '90s? Maybe 21st century style is all about skin -- and it doesn't even have to be your own.

Fashion has heartily embraced fur, leather and other nontraditional, or even non-p.c., textiles. This year designers have displayed clothing trimmed with the skins of sheep, foxes and bears as well as reptiles. Under the guise of "retro" dressing, fashion editors are exhorting readers to "Think Mink!" The nostalgia trend is real, but with snakeskin, it seems as if we're longing for a period of time dictated by the sensibility of Cro-Magnon, not Christian Dior.

If the modern primitive aesthetic is really behind the skin trend, then something's getting lost in the translation to modern wear. Our ancestors wore animal skins for more reasons than just to keep warm. Legend has it that they also used skin to commune with the dead animal's spirit and channel its power to achieve a specific objective. Whether the animal's skin served a totemic purpose or provided a way to honor a vanquished adversary, "primitive" people were conscious of their motives and desires in ways that we are not.

Unlike our ancestors, we are no longer interested in the skin itself. We just want the skin's pattern. Writers at In Style, Vogue and Harper's Bazaar have all cited the python print as an example of technology's ability to realistically integrate the patterns and textures of the natural world. Wearing plastic pants printed with snakeskin texture is postmodern dressing at its most "transgressive," they've declared.

By using technology to mimic the texture of a snake's skin and imprinting that facsimile on a fabric like silk or linen, we've found a way to both distance ourselves from nature and continue to covet it. Perhaps that's what creeps me out about these clothes. We no longer have to put up with the roughness of actual snakeskin in order to enjoy its beauty. The natural world has been divorced from reality, and mass-market advertising says this is a good, even desirable, outcome.

Photos of Sarah Michelle Gellar wearing baby blue python-printed pants remind me of the film "Blade Runner," which was based on sci-fi writer Philip K. Dick's dystopian novel "Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?" Ridley Scott's film immersed us in an environmentally wrecked world populated by people who can enjoy only simulated flora and fauna, never the real thing. Is it a coincidence that a fake snake's scale, bioengineered in a biotechnology swap meet, is the main clue that helps bounty hunter Deckard (Harrison Ford) locate the remaining renegade androids? Does donning plastic snakeskin mean we're just one stiletto step away from a similar world populated by fashionable androids and electric snakes?

Perversely, I also see the popularity of the snakeskin pattern as a positive trend, despite my distaste for snakes. Studying Wicca -- a relatively new pagan religion based largely on symbols, seasonal rituals and deities derived from ancient Celtic societies -- and other feminist spirituality movements has taught me to respect the slithery creatures. It's not accidental that the python print dominates solely women's fashion. I don't think we'll see snakeskin neckties or rompers anytime soon.

Some women enjoy the attention they draw by wearing snakeskin-printed clothing. Snakeskin's impact is greatest when it's coupled with the female silhouette because there's a primal connection between women and snakes -- a connection deeper even than the snake myth involving the Garden of Eden in Judeo-Christian theology.

Judy Grahn, a cultural historian and artist, writes in her book "Blood, Bread and Roses" about the primal link between women, snakes and menstruation. Grahn believes that our ancient ancestors selected the snake as the primal totem for women because it shared the human female's ability to shed. "The snake has been associated with menstruation through the shedding of its skin," Grahn writes, "a metamorphosis long connected to spiritual rebirth and the transformation of the soul -- a lunar connection."

Almost every pre-modern culture revered a snakelike deity, which was often characterized as a disembodied vagina. Victorian archaeologists felt safer identifying similar deities as primitive cultures' conception of their "original mother of the world." Snake cults abounded in prehistoric Eastern Europe, while Hawaiians worshiped a snake-shaped goddess called Humea. The Aztec creation goddess was a snake, as was Greek earth goddess Gaea. And according to Aboriginal culture in Australia, the Rainbow Serpent plays a crucial role in the creation of the world and all subsequent rainstorms.

The link between snakes and female sexuality continues through the ages, from Medusa and her snaky coif to Cleopatra and her accessorized asp. Eventually, according to feminist anthropologists like Marija Gimbutas, the sacred aspects of snakes were leached from cultural memory and the creatures became a pop culture metaphor for the sneaky behavior exhibited by femmes fatales. Film noir and horror films like "Attack of the Cobra Woman" use this sexually suggestive yet misogynistic stereotype to juice up staid story lines. Current films continue the trend. In the upcoming remake of "Bedazzled," Elizabeth Hurley, who plays the devil, not only wears a python-print bikini in the film's climax but also has a live python draped over her shoulders in promotional posters.

Still, Western culture has often equated snakes with sexuality as manifested by the penis, not female genitalia. Dozens of blues songs refer to a slippery snake as a metaphor for male sexuality. Blind Lemon Jefferson's 1926 recording "Black Snake Moan" is an early example; almost 70 years later, P.J. Harvey included a version of the song on her 1995 album "To Bring You My Love."

At one time, unspoken cultural assumptions about leather and sexuality resulted in society's branding women who wore leather -- including snakeskin -- as "fast" or "bad." Nice women just didn't wear leather. Today, practitioners of earth-based religions like Wicca are reclaiming old negative stereotypes, like the snake, and elevating them to symbols of power. These symbols have been absorbed by mainstream culture in the most surprising ways. It's no longer uncommon to see conventional stores carrying rings and necklaces bearing pagan symbols such as pentagrams, as well as little statues of snake-entwined female deities.

How far-fetched is it, then, for young women, familiar with pagan traditions, to revere the goddess in the form of a snake-wielding statue and a snakeskin-print skirt? I like to think that feminist ideas about female power have infiltrated mainstream culture to such a degree that women now feel comfortable enough in their own skins to wear clothing made of fabrics or textures that were once shunned for being unfeminine or depraved.

Noted herpetologist Harry Greene thinks the positive attention focused on fabrics with snakeskin patterns is great. Greene is a professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at Cornell University and author of the book "Snakes: The Evolution of Mystery in Nature." During a phone interview from his office in Ithaca, N.Y., he says, "Isn't it interesting that snakes have developed a pattern [on their skin] not for beauty, but to blend in with the environment, to harmonize with the background [as a natural survival mechanism]? I wonder if there's a link between the color pattern that attracts us and nature's ability to arrange the pattern of snake scales to mimic patterns in the environment in a harmonious way." Ironically, some women now wear snakeskin to attract attention, while snakes developed their beautiful patterns to escape detection in the wild.

Still, it seems twisted that the only way we can enjoy it is if the pattern is divorced from the actual skin. How can we truly enjoy the natural world if we're only capable of experiencing it at a distance?

Most people would argue that clothing printed with snakeskin patterns is popular because it's fun and trendy. But certainly most women are unconscious of why they respond favorably to the print. Despite my personal distaste for wearing snakeskin, I can guess why it's popular with trendsetters. What's a better fashion mascot than a creature with the ability to change its skin?

By Adrienne Crew

Adrienne Crew is Salon's Content Licensing manager and subscribes to too many fashion magazines.

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