'Putting on the Dog: The Animal Origins of What We Wear' (Book Review)

Melissa Kwasny explores the source of leather, wool, and other animal-based clothes.

Chic expensive fur coats
ozina / Getty Images

Every morning, when we get out of bed, we go to the closet and pull out garments to wear. It's part of being human, this need to clothe ourselves, and it sets us apart from other animals. But how often do we stop to think about everything that goes into making the clothes we buy and wear, specifically those made from animal products, such as wool, leather, and silk?

The answer for most of us is not that often, unless it's within the context of reacting to a PETA ad telling us that killing animals for clothing is cruel; or fretting about the microplastic pollution generated by synthetic garments; or worrying over garment workers' working conditions in faraway countries. We think far less about clothing's origins than we do food's, and yet clothing is also a basic need.

In order to better educate myself about the origins of clothing, I picked up a copy of Melissa Kwasny's book, "Putting on the Dog: The Animal Origins of What We Wear" (Trinity University Press, 2019). Kwasny is an award-winning writer and poet at the University of Montana and her book is a fascinating and highly readable dive into the world of animal-based clothing production. She traveled from Mexico to Denmark to Japan, and lots of places in between, talking to growers, farmers, manufacturers, and artisans to learn about their work and shed light on processes that the general public tends to know little about.

"Putting on the Dog" book cover

The book is divided into chapters based on materials – leather, wool, silk, feathers, pearls, and fur – seemingly in order of the likelihood of people owning them. Each delves into how animals are raised, handled, processed, and transformed into the products that so many humans now rely on or desire as objects of luxury and ornamentation. As someone who has only a vague understanding of how my favorite recycled wool sweater must have come from a sheep at some point and my old second-hand leather jacket was once part of a cow, this was utterly fascinating. 

I learned that a medium-weight down jacket uses about 250 grams of down, taken from approximately five to seven birds; that a silk scarf requires 110 cocoons and a tie, 140; that leather is now tanned mostly with harmful chromium because what used to take 45 days using vegetable dyes now takes three. I learned that feathers are one of the only materials that are not processed before using: "They don't have to be spun or woven or dyed or tanned or culture. They are gathered and washed with simple soap and water ... We haven't changed a thing." I learned that the pearl market is inundated with cultured freshwater pearls that are polished and dyed with regular hair dye, and that overstocking pearl farms is wreaking havoc with natural habitats and contaminating nearby watersheds. 

Kwasny's voice remains fairly neutral throughout the book on the topic of whether or not people should be wearing animal-based clothing. She does bring up questions of animal welfare and rights, asking Danish mink farmers about the devastating videos that revealed horrendous conditions (and were later proven to be falsified), and the issue of killing silkworm pupae in order to unravel their cocoons for silk thread, and whether or not live-plucking of geese and duck for their down is a widespread problem. The producers are always willing to talk, but only after they trust she's not trying to set them up or write an exposé, but simply wanting to understand it from an outsider's perspective.

What Kwasny does manage to convey is a profound and deep respect for the time and skills – often handed down from countless generations – that are required to create clothing from animals. We may have industrialized processes that churn out leather, silk, and other materials at a fraction of the cost nowadays, but these can never replicate the ornate feather capes worn by Polynesian royalty, or the intricate sealskin mukluks (boots) needed by the Inuit to survive in the Arctic, or the sweaters woven from the wool of wild vicuñas that's collected by Andean villagers every two to three years. 

It's only relatively recently that we've lost our connection to the source of the clothing we buy and wear, and this is both tragic and grossly unfair to the animals themselves. Kwasny tells the story of an anthropologist in Brazil who wanted to buy a spectacular headdress from the Waiwai people, but first had to listen to five hours of stories about how each animal part was obtained.

"When he asked the villagers to skip that part, they couldn't. Every object had to be given with the story of 'where its raw materials came from, how it was made, through who hands it passed, when it was used.' To not do so – to not impart those stories – disrespected not only the animal but also all the knowledge and skill that went into producing the desired garment."

Kwasny doesn't take a strong stance for or against animal products, but she does warn about the harm caused by synthetics, the plastic pollution they generate during laundering and after disposal, and cotton's tremendous appetite for water.

She urges people not to view animal-sourced clothing as unequivocally wrong, since that attitude is uncomfortably reminiscent of colonialism and the imposition of a "modern" world view on traditional cultures that have been honing their skills for millennia. Citing Alan Herscovici, author of "Second Nature: The Animal Rights Controversy,"

"To tell people to buy synthetics is to tell thousands of trappers (many of them Native Indians) that they should live in cities and work in factories rather than stay in the woods. It is difficult to see how such a shift can help health the nature/culture split, which the ecology movement began by criticizing." 

Even Greenpeace has since apologized for its anti-sealing campaigns in the 1970s and 80s, saying in 2014 that its "campaign against commercial sealing did hurt many, both economically and culturally," with far-reaching consequences. While many Treehugger readers will doubtless disagree with this perspective, it's important (and uncomfortable) food for thought.

The best approach is probably the same as it is with food, to choose the highest quality item with the most traceable and ethical supply chain, and then wear it over and over again.

"Slow fashion" is the sartorial counterpart to the "slow food" movement, emphasizing "buying from local and smaller sources, designing with sustainable materials, such as organic wool or cotton, and utilizing secondhand, recycled, and refurbished clothing," as well as educating shoppers in how to make their clothes last

To reject the rampant consumerism of fast fashion is a must. So is remembering that the Earth is all we have: "We must eat it, drink it, and wear it," Kwasny says. Everything we make and use comes from the Earth, and everything causes harm: "To believe that we do no harm by abstaining from animal products is to tell ourselves a lie."

The question is how to minimize that harm, how to tread as lightly as possible, and how to, once again, embrace an attitude of respect and gratitude for all that we take from the planet.

You can order the book online: "Putting on the Dog: The Animal Origins of What We Wear" by Melissa Kwasny (Trinity University Press, 2019).