Anne here, responding to a question sent to us by Mary F, who wins a book in exchange for her question. Mary asked: "Was a catskin waistcoat really made out of cats' skins?
Yes, Mary they were, gruesome as it seems to us in modern western society. In the poorer and more thrifty societies of the past, they used everything — even those animals we don't consider for meat or fur or leather.
I was unable to find a photo of a historical cat-skin waistcoat, but here, for instance is a photo of cat-skin jackets on sale in a foreign marketplace. Recognizably cat, aren't they? You can even buy them on line from China and other places. You can also buy dog-skin garments on line.
In modern western society, the wearing of fur is very much out of vogue and we are quite limited in the kind of leather we consider "normal" — mostly it's cow-skin, or sheep-skin or perhaps deer-skin — coming from the animals whose meat we most commonly eat.
We're also more accustomed to using the skins of wild animals, and only the threat of extinction has made some of those furs unacceptable today. Some wild creatures are still hunted or farmed, either for meat or skin or both— deer and kangaroo being examples.
But the thought of using the skins of those animals we consider our beloved pets — cats and dogs— is horrific to most of us.
In historical England it was extremely risky to let your pet dog or cat roam at night, because they might be snatched from the street and never seen again—especially if they were pretty. To stop the stray and feral animal problem dog-catchers—and, yes it was a job back then—were allowed—actually encouraged—to collect any strays they found wandering the streets at night. So if poor little Fido went wandering at night he could be caught, skinned and sold by morning.
What stopped this trade in catskin and dogskin items in the UK was the introduction of anti-cruelty laws in the Victorian era. I won't go into details—you'd be horrified, as I was when researching this—but suffice it to say that there was no attempt to skin these poor creatures humanely. And that's still the case in some parts of the world today.
Animal rights protesters are campaigning today on the same issue. There is pressure on governments to replace the famous domed bearskin hats worn by many regiments— most famously the soldiers who stand guard outside Buckingham Palace. Made from the skins of Canadian black and brown bears, it takes an entire bearskin to make just one hat.
Some regiments wear what they call a 'sealskin cap' made of raccoon skins. Some uniforms called for leopard skins and the fur of other wild animals, but they've mostly been replaced now by artificial materials.
But back to the original question. Fur and leather garments and items were very popular in historical England — waistcoats of catskin, gloves of dogskin or pigskin or pretty much any kind of skin people could get. Fans were often made of chicken skins and prettily painted, like the one on the left.
As for moleskins I can't find any reference to the use of the skins of moles and the consensus of my brief research on line seemed to be the name came from the color and texture of the cotton fabric we call moleskin. Presumably it resembles a moleskin. So that was a bit of luck for moles.
Our heroes are often seen in buckskins, and Alfred Noyes's "Highwayman" wore "breeches of brown doe-skin." The "beaver" hat so many of our Regency heroes wear was originally made from the felted fur of the beaver. Later the fur of rabbits was used, through the name "beaver" continued.
In historical romance however, catskin waistcoats are not generally worn by heroes — or anyone upper-class. In Georgette Heyer's The Corinthian, a very dodgy minor character was distinguished by his cat-skin waistcoat.
I too have been guilty of the use of a cat-skin waistcoat. In The Spring Bride, my hero, Zach, arrives wearing one. He was in disguise as a shifty character, so the waistcoat was vital. It was not, however, approved of by his best friend, Gil:
Gil shuddered. "And the cat-skin waistcoat? There's no possible excuse for that."
Zach stroked it lovingly. "Dreadful isn't it?"
Gil shook his head.
…. and later on …
"Show this to my man, he'll lend you my shaving gear and find you something respectable to wear." He narrowed his eyes at his old friend. "That appalling coat and especially that" —he glanced at the catskin waistcoat and shuddered—"abomination are not to be seen in my vicinity, understand?"
Zach shook his head sorrowfully. "Gilbert, Gilbert, and I thought you liked cats."
"I do. That's the problem."
Anne again: My grandmother had a fox fur where the fox's head was intact and the poor little creature had a spring in his jaw with which he bit his own tail. So what about you — what's the weirdest, strangest or most grotesque leather or fur you've seen? Or worn? (And don't forget, if you have a question for the wenches, and it sparks a wench's interest for a blog topic, you'll win a book, as Mary F did for this question.)