Monkeys à la mode

This post is by guest contributor Dr. Kimberly Chrisman-Campbell.

From medieval manuscripts to modern-day TV commercials, monkeys have served as satirical stand-ins for humans, mocking our fashions and foibles, and especially our tendency to “ape” our betters. The long-held view that man descended from simians, coupled with the monkey’s natural talent for mimicry, make it an ideal vehicle for parodying human behavior. The Monkeys of Christophe Huet: Singeries in French Decorative Arts (Getty Publications, 2011) examines singeries–comic scenes of monkeys (singes in French) imitating humans–and other artistic representations of dressed monkeys, highlighting an unexpectedly rich resource for fashion historians.

Monkeys appeared in European art from the Middle Ages onwards. But the first dressed monkeys are found in paintings and engravings of the late sixteenth century, when Dutch genre painters like David Teniers the Younger devoted entire canvases to the subject. 

David Teniers II, Apenkortegaard, c. 1633, Mauritshuis

The founding of the French East India Company in 1664 opened Europe to Eastern trade and artistic inspiration. Decorative arts in the Asian style–generically termed “Chinoiserie”–flourished in the eighteenth century, frequently incorporating monkeys as well as pagodas, arabesques, and other exotic touches. Monkeys invaded tapestries, ceramics, clocks, and even harpsichords.

Monkeys were not the only human surrogates in eighteenth-century art; cherubic infants were often depicted engaging in grown-up pastimes and professions, and papilloneries featured anthropomorphized butterflies (papillons). But, as Ptolemy Tomkins observes in The Monkey in Art, monkeys embodied the playful, theatrical spirit of mid-eighteenth-century fashion:  

“For the monkeys . . . all clothing is costume: to be worn for as long as it is entertaining and to be cast aside as soon as it ceases to be so. . . . Ultimately, it is a sense that all costumes, no matter how heavy and elaborate, are removable; that whatever one outfit one is called upon to walk through one’s life wearing, it can, at least for the moment, be left triumphantly behind.”

Simply by donning the appropriate garments, monkeys could become musicians, painters, peasants, scholars, schoolmasters, sculptors, or even aristocrats.


Jean-Baptiste-Simeon Chardin, Le Singe peintre, c. 1739, Musée du Louvre 

These images and objects were usually intended to satirize human fashions and fashionability; however, monkeys were also popular pets at the time, prominently on view in the homes and portraits of the elite.


Rosalba Carriera, Young Girl Holding a Monkey, c. 1721, Musée du Louvre

Just as “accessory dogs” sport Juicy Couture today, these exotic pets occasionally wore clothes. A surviving silk taffeta coat resembles the one worn by the modish monkey in Hogarth’s Taste in High Life (1746), who peruses a menu of exotic foreign dishes through a monocle. 


J. Jarvis after William Hogarth, Taste in High Life, British Museum, 1746 


Outfit for monkey, French, eighteenth century, silk taffeta, Musée de la mode et du Textile, Paris

Monkeys lent these scenes credibility and visual interest, but they also functioned as convenient metaphors for imitative people. In France, to call a person the “singe” of someone else was akin to calling him a “copycat” today. As Louise Robbins pointed out in Elephant Slaves and Pampered Parrots: Exotic Animals in Eighteenth-Century Paris, social mobility was on the rise, and “anxiety about eloquent imposters was intense in some circles during this period–that fear combined with the prevalence of . . . monkeys as pets among the fashionable made for convenient analogies between mimicking animals and . . . social climbers.”

The best-dressed monkeys of the eighteenth century are those inhabiting two salons in the Château de Chantilly. Known as the Grande Singerie and the Petite Singerie, they were decorated by Christophe Huet in the years 1735-40. Huet’s decorative scheme–created for a wealthy and well-connected aristocratic family–is unusually detailed in its depiction of contemporary fashion, and wears its satirical subtext lightly. Chantilly is an easy day trip from Paris and well worth a visit, but The Monkeys of Christophe Huet is the next best thing to seeing the singeries in person. A full-color, English-language text on Huet’s masterpiece has been long overdue, and art historians are going to go bananas over this beautifully illustrated and thoughtfully written book.

In the Grande Singerie, monkeys in Chinese robes mingle with humans personifying the arts and sciences, the five senses, and the four corners of the world. The paintings cover the walls and ceiling; they are reflected in enormous mirrors and enlivened with gilding. On one door, a monkey walks a tightrope wearing pumpkin hose, the traditional costume for male and female acrobats in the eighteenth century; on another, a soldier monkey wears the uniform and carries the flag of the chateau’s owner, the Prince de Condé. It is a grand public room, designed to amaze and stimulate the eye and the intellect.

Grande Singerie, tightrope walker

By contrast, the Petite Singerie is an intimate, feminine space, which served as a private sitting room for the lady of the house. Here, we see female monkeys in the fashionable dress of the mid-1730s performing the daily activities of aristocratic ladies: bathing, dressing, and playing cards. Other panels represent seasonal activities like picking cherries, hunting, and sleighing.

Petite Singerie, detail of sleighing scene

For the hunt, the monkeys wear riding habits of dun and amaranth, the colors of the Condé livery–the costume the family and their guests would wear while hunting in the grounds of the estate. Their accessories include tricorn hats and powdered bag wigs, typically masculine garments co-opted by sporty women.

Petite Singerie, detail of hunting scene

The bath scene is a rare and realistic image of an eighteenth-century bathroom and bathing ritual; the monkey kicks off her red-heeled shoes (long before Louboutins, these signified that one had been presented at Versailles, an allusion to the family’s courtly connections) but she will wear her lace-trimmed white linen chemise in the tub.


Petite Singerie, detail of bathing scene

Simian physiognomy also influenced human dress in the eighteenth century. In 1781, the Mémoires Secrets recorded a fad for gowns with long, twisted trains, called “monkey tails.” The “gorilla sleeves” of the 1970s are currently enjoying a revival–proof, if we needed it, that fashion eventually makes monkeys of us all.


Betsey Johnson for Alley Cat Coat, 1971, Cotton corduroy & faux fur, FIDM Museum, 2008.5.2 



Gorilla sleeves

More than mere monkey business, singeries depict human behavior cloaked in bestial colors and textures. Their enduring popularity, combined with their implicit critique of followers of fashion, make them a rich resource for dress historians.


Further Reading:

Louis Petit de Bachaumont et al., Mémoires secrets pour servir à l’histoire de la république des lettres en France (London: John Adamson, 1780)

Diana Donald, Picturing Animals in Britain, 1750-1850 (London: Yale University Press, 2007)

Nicole Garnier-Pelle, Anne Forray-Carlier, and Marie Christine Anselm, The Monkeys of Christophe Huet: Singeries in French Decorative Arts (Los Angeles: J. Paul Getty Museum, 2011)

Baronne d’Oberkirch, Mémoires de la baronne d’Oberkirch, ed. Suzanne Burkard (Paris: Mercure de France, 1989)

Louise E. Robbins, Elephant Slaves and Pampered Parrots: Exotic Animals in Eighteenth-Century Paris (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2002)

Ptolemy Tompkins, The Monkey in Art (New York: Scala Books, 1994)

Dr. Kimberly Chrisman-Campbellis an independent fashion and textile historian and occasional contributor to WornThrough. Her work on eighteenth- and nineteenth-century French fashion has also appeared in Costume, Textile History, PieceWork, and Dress, as well as in several books and exhibition catalogs.

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