I say to you “cat lady”. You say to me; “plaid”.
Spectacles, spinster, pleated skirt below the knee. Maybe a stutter, definitely a stoop, surely one of the litter will be called Mr. Snookums.
Not so in the earlier half of the 20th century, when “Here kitty kitty” was not followed by the scrape of a spoon on a can of whiskers and a feeble mewling about the ankles; but summoned something altogether more feral. A very different vogue had captured the hearts of women, and they were drooling over very different sorts of cats.
Along the canal roads of Venice strutted the Marchesa Luisa Casati, wearing nothing but a fur coat, live snakes as jewellery, with her pet cheetah on a leash.
Phyllis Gordon, acclaimed silent screen goddess, was photographed casually window shopping with her cheetah (flown in from Kenya) on the fashionable streets of London in 1939.
Josephine Baker, jazz dancing American-born but Parisian-performing sensation, was given Chiquita the cheetah as a gift by Pepito, her one-time manager and lover. Pepito learned to bitterly regret the speckled feline, as Josephine Baker was so in love with Chiquita she forgot to love her lover. Chiquita was doted upon, and in days of lax laws and no animal quarantines Chiquita was flown by air, brought on car rides, holidays and even slept in Josephine’s bed.
Iconic editor of Harper’s Bazaar, Diana Vreeland, told a well-known anecdote about Josephine and Chiquita; on one very hot July Vreeland had gone to a cinema, watching a film about soldiers in a desert oasis. The delirious soldiers dreamed of a Queen who was surrounded by a fountain of champagne and basking cheetahs. When the lights came up in the cinema, Vreeland was shocked and delighted to find she was sitting next to Chiquita. Josephine had brought the cheetah along to see the cheetahs in the film. By Vreeland’s account; “Out in the street there was an enormous white and silver Rolls-Royce waiting for her. The driver opened the door; she let go of the lead; the cheetah whooped, and took one leap into the back of the Rolls, with Josephine right behind.” To add extra glamour to the occasion, Josephine was described as wearing couture Vionnet for the jaunt to the flicks.
How, you may be asking, did these women manage to get their manicured claws on wild cats? Well, according to some very thorough research on my part, apparently a cheetah is the only big cat you can (just about logistically, though by no means ethically) keep as a pet. Unlike their more aggressively carnivorous family members like the lion, leopard, panther and tiger, the cheetah is actually surprisingly tameable. In contrast to other members of the feline family, who can fell antelopes and water buffalo alone, cheetahs are very selective about their prey and tend to stick to smaller animals. Essentially, if you are a fully-grown adult, a cheetah is more likely to flee from you than attack you. Also they only weigh about 100 pounds and don’t have the bulk or muscle to tackle a human. Simply put; we are to them, higher in the food chain. Of course this by no means concedes that cheetahs should be pets, they’re still very much animals that do not belong in captivity, regardless of how decadent that captivity may be.
But cheetahs, though I’ve gorged on them thus far, were not the only form this obsession with big cats took. The trend trickled into other places, and Jeanne Toussaint, mistress of Louis Cartier himself, became known for her tiger fur coat. The motto seems to be; if you can’t tame them – skin them. Soon after their acquaintance, Cartier gave her a cigarette case with the image of a panther, and Jeanne Toussaint fell in love (though not necessarily with him). Earning herself the nickname; “La Panthére”, she became creative director of jewellery, and it’s thanks to her tenure at Cartier that their symbol of the panther endures. It was her techniques, designs and frankly, obsession, that turned the panther into the logo for the luxury brand.
Of course to call a wild animal a ‘beautiful object’ is a complete misnomer. But to discuss the way in which they were once commodified, and treated exactly as that, makes sense to me. It is not so much the cats themselves that captivated these women – and yes, it was always women – as the connotations of power. They were an accessory with which each woman could declare her daring, dangerousness and decadence. In a time when the majority of women were still lacking in rights and voice, these women used the animals as props to transport them from pedestrian to predatory.
If one starts looking into the personalities of the women in question, you find they each have a backstory that bites. Josephine Baker went from destitute childhood to mega stardom through sheer cunning, Marchesa Casati was breaking all the conventions of her corseted aristocratic chains and Jeanne Toussaint’s origins are as obscurely shady as her end was opulent. Each was a woman of independent means, with money of their own and ambition. They were a new sort of woman; dynamic, intellectually agile and autonomous. The exotic pets were a warning signal to those around them, a swipe at society stating; “I am lethal, I am fierce.”
I don’t know what it means, symbolically that is, in terms of our recent trend in handbag dogs. Should I write a follow up article about that?
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