Vogue recently covered primate fashion for the Chinese year of the monkey. In this post, I’ll cover, monkeys in fashion, but more importantly, point out that most “monkeys” are actually apes. Primates are hard to wear, so let’s see how these designers (and you) can pull it off.
Year of the Ape? Many of the monkey in Vogue’s piece are actually not monkeys, but apes. Apes are of the superfamily Hominoidea made up of families, Hominidae (“great apes”) and Hylobatidae (“lesser apes”). The most well-known primates including chimpanzees, gorillas, orangutans, and us, are great apes from the Hominidae family. How can you tell the difference of an ape from a monkey? The easiest way is the presence of a tail.
One of the most famous apes in fashion is from Christopher Kane’s spring 2009 collection. Kane was inspired by the remake of “Planet of the Apes” and although many call this a gorilla dress, to me it looks like a chimpanzee. Of any animal, we share the most recent common ancestor with chimpanzees. To give you an idea of how similar we are, one study using 90 kb of nucleotide sequences from 97 genes found humans and chimpanzees to be identical at 99.4% of non synonymous sites (not so important functionally) and 98.4% at synonymous (functionally important) sites.
There are actually two species of chimpanzees, the common, Pan troglodytes, and the bonobo, Pan paniscus. Most people are familiar with the common chimpanzee, made famous by the long-term studies and books of scientist, Dr. Jane Goodall. Chimpanzees like many primates are social and higher primates are more varied in their facial expressions. The chimpanzee in Kane’s dress is displaying a full open grin, signifying fear or another form of excitement.
I like to think that the chimpanzees in the Prada dress are actually bonobos. Bonobos are known for being peaceful and highly sexual, which contributes to their conflict resolution. Although individuals from both species can be violent, bonobos are much less so, with only one intraspecific killing observed.
Gorillas are the largest primates and are second closest to humans in shared ancestry. There are two species, the Western (Gorilla gorilla) and Eastern (Gorilla beringeri), which includes the mountain subspecies made famous by Dian Fossey and the movie Gorillas of the Mist. Mountain gorillas have been more intensely studied because they are easy to see and habituate, despite being located on high elevation volcanic mountains in Rwanda, Democratic Republic of Congo, and Uganda. Although Rihanna’s dress looks fierce, these gorillas are amazingly gentle. I was lucky enough to visit Rwanda’s Virunga Mountains and see the gorillas first-hand. Reading about the experience before I went, I was worried I wouldn’t see them well and there would be very low light (this was when I still had a non-digital camera). Wow, was I wrong! These gorillas are extremely habituated. Within five minutes of visiting the group, I had already seen a silverback mate a few meters away. When following the group as they moved, we had to climb a steeper vegetated slope. The person behind me was pushing against me to move forward (rude), but as they moved ahead and cut me, I realized it was a young gorilla. Although it was an expensive experience (400 USD in 2005), it was worth it. Some find this form of ecotourism controversial because visiting the gorillas in this way seems to reduce their “wildness”. I had mixed feelings myself, but the reality of the situation is that these gorillas are extremely endangered, and ecotourism is probably the only reason they are still alive. The practice is heavily regulated; you can only visit the group for one hour a day and not all groups are visited each day.
For the other Eastern subspecies and the Western gorillas, observations can be difficult. Scientists have tried to habituate them for research and tourism, with varying degrees of success, but nothing to the success of the mountain gorilla. One of the best way to study gorillas is through their nests, which they build every night for sleeping. Researchers can use these nests for censusing and if there is dung close to the nest, you can also collect information on ages because bolus size increases with age as it does in forest elephants. Scientists have also been able to gather information genetically from shed hairs in the nest. Because the hair is shed, it is more difficult to get DNA from samples as you are not likely to have a good sample of the hair pulp.
All of the great apes, except humans, are endangered. Their slow rates of birth of only one or two offspring, make them susceptible and recovery difficult. They also face many threats – habitat loss, poaching, illegal pet trade, hunting for bushmeat, and disease.
Monkey Fashion. There are monkeys in fashion, but most are too generic to identify. Primates are divided into two suborders: strepsirrhines and haplorrhines. The former are more ancestral-looking, meaning they have longer snouts smaller brains, and a moist nose with bare skin (more dog-like nose), whereas the haplorrhines’ noses are more suppressed and hairy. All of the primates in fashion come from the haplorrhine suborder. I have yet to find lemurs, pottos, lorises, or bush babies in runway designs. The monkeys seen in fashion likely come from Platyrrhini, which contains families of the New World monkeys, or Cercopithecoidea, the Old World monkeys. These are more of the classic-looking monkeys with long prehensile tails and too many species to mention. Simians, refers to the infraorder containing all of these groups discussed, including the apes. Vogue is in fact correct in that aspect of the article’s title.
How do you pull off primates in fashion? In my opinion, monkeys are the most wearable. My favorite’s are the Lanvin monkey statement necklace and romantic Valentino gown. If these are still too bold for you. Try to go with a print where they monkeys are a little bit more blended in and not center stage as in the Delpozo look.
As for me, if someone gets me the Lanvin necklace, I would totally rock it!