For our second article of the new year, we’d like to talk about fish fashion for a bit. There have been many jewelry and clothing items that have existed throughout the years (and many that still do today) that are derived from our pals from the deep. There are some others out there that despite their name and appearance, actually have nothing to do with any sort of marine animal. In this post, we’ll talk about some items that fall into both of these categories.
The first sea-born fashion staple we’ll mention is whalebone. Whalebone is really just another name for baleen, which is what many whales have instead of teeth. It’s comprised of a rather strong bristly material that works as a filter for whales as they take in food while sucking in massive amounts of sea water. There are several different whale species that have baleen, with Blue whales, Gray whales, Right whales and Bowhead whales being just a few of them. When it comes to the gargantuan Blue whale, its baleen alone can account for over 200 lbs of weight.
The coarse, bristly nature of baleen has lent itself well to many beauty and fashion products over the years. In the 18th century there were many hairbrushes that features baleen bristles and in some markets you can still get these today. Baleen, or whalebone as is the preferred term in the fashion world, was also used to provide ribbing for parasols. (Those quaint thin sun-blocking umbrellas) Most famously, whalebone was used for the production of corsets.
During the Victorian era, many women wore whalebone corsets. They were used to slim the trunk and to accentuate certain other… assets. Some of them were worn for the purpose of temporary shape shifting while others were employed to have permanent effects. When the whaling industry was at its height, there were several tailors who specialized exclusively in making these corsets. They went by the very imaginative name of “corset-makers”. These corset specialists would often custom-design every corset they made to fit the body and the wishes of each individual client.
In the introduction to this article, we made brief mention of the fact that there are some items in the world of fashion that have fish-related names, but in reality have no connection to fish whatsoever. This is the case with sharkskin, an especially smooth and often very expensive fabric. Contrary to popular belief, sharkskin does not contain any actual skin from sharks. It does however consist of natural materials produced by animals such as wool, silk, and mohair1. It gets its name from the fact that it has a similar sheen and texture featured by that of the skin of most sharks.
If you’ve ever watched any of The Godfather movies or watched classic performances by Dean Martin, Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis Jr, or any other member of the Rat Pack, then you’ve doubtlessly already seen sharkskin suits, possibly without even knowing it. While sharkskin is most commonly a fabric used to make men’s suits, it also sees use in making wet suits for surfers and divers, napkins, and sometimes even tablecloths. As if regular sharkskin wasn’t expensive enough, there’s an even more refined version produced in South America which is composed of alpaca fur, vicuna, and guano. Depending on one’s point of view, that last ingredient might be enough to sway one’s charms away from this high-fashion fabric.
Arguably, one the of the most famous fashion items that originates from a sea creature is pearls. Pearls are very unique in the sense that they are the only gem in the world that is produced by a living being. Nearly all pearls that are commercially served are made by the very delicious and nutritious oyster. It’s just the shellfish that keeps on giving.
Some people who are very superstitious may tend to avoid pearls at all costs (due largely to the old saying “pearls bring tears”), they have nevertheless remained a jewelry staple for centuries. Many women have been known to wear pearl earrings, pearl necklaces, and pearl bracelets. Oprah ,Winfrey, Princess Dianna and Elizabeth Taylor as well as younger celebrities such as Rihanna and Jennifer Lawrence have been famous for sporting pearl-based jewelry and accessories.
Even though oysters are the most famous pearl pearl producers of the world, they are not the only ones. Clams, scallops and mussels can produce pearls as well, though their offerings are rarely very pleasing to the eye. Unfortunately for oysters, pearls are actually brought about through an irritating element getting inside of their shells. This causes the mantle of the shell to produce a substance called nacre. The secretion of nacre continues until the irritating agent has been fully encapsulated and this is when the pearl is fully formed.
Pearls that are formed in the way described in the previous paragraph are referred to as “natural pearls”. The other variety of pearl is the cultivated pearls. The main difference here is that a cultivated pearl is made when an irritating substance is purposely put in a small slit made in the shell of a farm-raised oyster. Once the irritant is inside, the process is pretty much the same.
The last fish fashion that we’ll get into today is not just a fashion element, but a very consuming hobby for some people as well. What we’re talking about is scrimshaw. If you’ve ever heard of scrimshaw before, it refers to the art of making products and works of art out of the teeth of marine creatures, usually whales and sharks. Have you ever seen anyone wearing a shark-tooth neckalce? If so, then you’ve seen the fruits of scrimshaw.
Baseball fans may remember New York Mets relief pitcher and scrimshaw enthusiast Turk Wendell often wearing a shark tooth necklace during his time on the mound during the late 1990s. While many scrimshaw pieces find their way into jewelry, others are made into standalone art while still others are incorporated into tools and other household implements.
We hope you’ve enjoyed our brief lecture on fish fashion and that it’s helped you to develop an even greater appreciation for our amazing ocean-dwelling friends.
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