Often considered a symbol of negativity due to both Christian and Jewish subtexts, the snake was for a long time the representative of temptation and evil in western ideals. Eastern countries, such as Egypt, were more accepting of the reptile and wore jewellery portraying their admiration for the creatures. Indian cultures also worshipped the cobra in special temples dedicated to the serpents, which they recognise as a symbol of defence and Godliness. Due to the western Romantic Movement of the 19th Century, the snake came to epitomise love and renaissance thanks to Queen Victoria’s serpentine engagement ring. Ever since our ancestors began to embrace the snake in the 19th Century, snakeskin as a material has dramatically increased in popularity.
Snakeskin and fashion are closely related. Whilst always being worn by Indian hunters, since 1892 snakeskin as a fabric has become popular in western cultures. This is seen by the arrival of bags designed from reptile skin by Louis Vuitton and also visible from the fringed cowboy styles first seen entering 1970’s mainstream fashion.
Snakeskin is said to be obtained from ‘python farms’ in countries found in Eastern Asia such as Indonesia and Vietnam, but are also gathered illegally due to the long, five year, time taken for pythons to grow to their greatest size. Python farms breed the reptiles for their skin, rather than depopulating the environment by hunting for the wild snakes in their natural habitat. Most poachers attain their snakeskin by attaching the reptile to a stationary object, making an incision near the snake’s head and detaching the skin from the body in one piece. Alternatively, they can also be decapitated before the removal of their skin, although this procedure is seen as being less cost effective.
The most coveted snakes used in the fashion industry are ‘python curtus’, snakes with a brown-orange skin and ‘python reticulatus’, snakes with a grey and white skin. One benefit of snakeskin as a fabric is the versatility of the textured skin, which allows it to be dyed a variety of colours. Many fashion houses also treat snakeskin products with silicone before sale, which protects against possible everyday wear and degrading of the skin.
Not only is snakeskin a vital feature of modern day clothing and accessories but is also more frequently being used in the beauty industry to adorn nails – with a full set of python talons costing around £200.
Decades ago, snakeskin would have been reserved for bikers and rockers; however the material is so often used in the modern day that it is difficult to identify when its popularity will begin to decline.