It is, Mrs Daffodil has been reliably informed, something called “Shark Week.” Mrs Daffodil does not, as a rule, celebrate ocean-going predators, but it is an excellent excuse to discuss the fashionable uses for shagreen.
Four centuries ago shagreen—a handsome Chinese presentation of fish skin was the envy of all the young dandies about town, says an overseas fashion recorder. But shagreen was exclusive and expensive, cured and cut and shaped by hand, and it was only the dandy with a long purse who could afford to have this lovely decoration on his sword sheath or snuff-box. Once again Bond Street has revived shagreen. It has been displayed in the shop windows for some months, and just around the corner, off Old Bond Street, you will find the workers of the Chinese fish skin busy curing, “kneading,” and dyeing it to the perfection of its finished state.
Just as was the case 400 years ago, it is still exclusive and costly.
The process of manufacture is long and difficult. The skin does not lend itself to factory production, so that in shagreen articles you have one of the most beautiful of the hand-made productions.
Shagreen experts tell me that the skin is “practically everlasting,” and, what is more delightful, age intensifies its beauty. It looks lovely bound with silver in brush-and comb sets. There are complete outfits for the secretaire, and endless small things like scent sprays, cigarette and match cases, and a few book-bindings are shown. The colours are exquisite—soft blue, grey, rose and especially green. It was the green that was used in the early 17th century—for the art of making shagreen take subtle dyes was not then known—and some fortunate people have pieces of green among their family heirlooms. In the little “factory ” 1 was shown shagreen as it arrives from the Orient. Actually it is (he skin of a small rare shark, and the raw material is as stiff and hard as a board. The placoid scales of the shark give it a very rough surface. It looks as if tiny pebbles have been embedded in the skin. They feel like stone. In the old days the skin of horses and wild asses was treated to imitate shagreen and part of the process was to embed a certain seed in the skin while it was soft, and so artificially manufacture the knitter 1 surface. As a rule the real skin arrives in a creamy tint and often in a colour that requires no dye. Many hours of labour have to be spent filing down the hard scales and kneading the buckram like texture to the softness of kid When ready for mounting the hard nodules have been transformed to a pearl-like pattern and even after dyeing this creamy colour remains where the scales were, and on this particular shark every pore seems to be a scale. No two skins are alike. Frequently two skins put into a bath of green dye will take the colour in two totally different shades. This not only annoys the worker but adds to the price of the finished article. Shagreen is used effectively to line the bathroom walls in the Queen’s dolls’ house, where the ceiling is of snail shell and the bath of rose rock crystal.
New Zealand Herald 27 November 1926: p. 6
Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire: When we speak of “shagreen” and sharkskin, these, of course, refer to the actual skin of a shark rather than the louche shiny suiting fabric favoured by cads.
While sharkskin has long been in use as a luxe leather, it was not until the Great War’s leather shortages that its potential was once again explored.
Shortage of Leather
Demand for Military Purposes Leaves Little for Civilian Uses.
America’s entrance into the war has created a demand for fancy leathers.
For example, more leather has been cut up for wrist watch straps this year than ever before and the demand is increasing. Officers’ vests are being made from chamois skins. Leather is required for binding army manuals and reports and there is a big demand for leather for covering field glasses, cameras, surgical instruments, cases, etc. Steel helmets must be lined with leather. Leather is also needed for automobile and airplane equipment.
There is a great demand for leather for straps, revolver cases, harnesses and saddlery, not to mention money belts, pipe cases, trench cigarette cases and the like.
Pigskin for Leggings.
It is said that the demand for pigskin for leggings and other military equipment has practically exhausted the supply of this leather and cowhide is now being used by manufacturers of these articles.
No Walrus for Bags.
Little walrus will be seen in bags and cases this year as the Newfoundland catch of this animal was the smallest in many seasons and, due to the war conditions, no Norwegian skins came to this country this year. It is said that the high price of those skins which were obtained in Newfoundland practically prohibits their use.
Unless next year’s American catch is unusually large and some way is found for releasing Europe’s supply of these skins, genuine walrus leather will probably be conspicuously absent in bags in this country for the rest of the war.
Seeking a Substitute
Dealers and manufactures ware now concerned with the question of what is to take the place of walrus. Alligator skin, once so popular, is out of the question. Alligator skin went out of fashion when its growing scarcity made its price prohibitive.
In the years since his tanned hide furnished the most popular bags of the day, the alligator has not increased in numbers. The Florida supply is practically exhausted. It has been suggested, though, that the hunting of these reptiles in Mexico and South America might be profitably developed.
Finding a Use for Sharks.
Sharkskin is the newest and most likely addition to bag leathers. Like that of the walrus, the skin of the shark is about an inch thick when it is removed from the fish. It is soft and spongy before it is tanned, but becomes a tough, fibrous leather when cured.
A special process of tanning has been developed for shrinking fine, scaly, file-like surface of sharkskin until it assumes a grain similar to walrus. This process makes the skin practical for traveling bags.
Sharks are already being hunted by two companies formed for this purpose and a number of skins are being made up into bags. One manufacturer is said to have taken 2000 of these skins. If a dependable supply of skins can be obtained, sharkskin may become a factor in the leather trade. At present the uncertainty of the supply and the high prices which must be realized naturally restrict its sale. Dry Goods Economist, Vol. 71, 17 November 1917: p. 81
The “special process” was the key to shark skin leather:
Hides of Sea Fish Used in Lieu of Cow Leather.
Ft. Myers, Fla., April 4. Sister in devilfish dancing pumps. Dad in sharkskin shoes. Mother in stingaree slippers.
These things will soon come to pass. A plant at Sanibel, Fla., is making them now.
These fish, heretofore useless to man, are being caught and brought to the plant. Their skins are tanned. The tanning process was invented by Ehreinrich, president and promoter of the Ocean Leather Company.
Ehreinrich has become wealthy by selling the European and South American rights to his process.
Suit Cases and other leather goods will be made. Salisbury [NC] Evening Post 4 April 1921: p. 6
To Mrs Daffodil’s chagrin, she has not been able to locate an image of early 20th-century shagreen shoes. These are from Persia, c. 1800
The steaming jungles and the rolling ocean alike are being ravished for materials for feminine footwear. Many a debutant today selects shoes of snake skin in which to scale the social scarps. In supply this new and crying need, many a python has wrapped its last.
However, the real hippopottomus’ hip, as one Broadway comedian expresses it is sharkskin. Shoes of this type are gray in tone and the supply of material, so far as New York is concerned is inexhaustible. Any hook for an attractive feminine bait will catch a dozen thick skinned gray sharks any day in any pool between the Waldorf and the Westchester road houses. The Bee [Danville VA] 12 December 1923: p. 3
“The real hippopottomus’ hip,” is the youthful slang used to express the notion that sharkskin shoes are the dernier cri. One suspects that “sharks” is the vernacular for “not quite a gentleman.”
SHARKSKIN IS SWAGGER SAYS THE EFFETE EAST
It’s Used Now to Trim Motor Coats, As Well as for Smart Accessories.
New York, Oct. 30. A football game at the polo grounds serves to emphasize the esteem in which shark skin is held at present. The rough and swagger and sporty looking leather is made into any number of articles such as purses, cigarette cases and hand bags. Sometimes the skin is used to cover the handle of an umbrella, and it formed the cuffs and collars of one remarkable motor coat seen at the polo grounds Saturday. Rockford [IL] Republic 30 October 1922: p. 4
Shark skin and white leather form one of the large, unusual bags carried by the Duchess Sforza, who favours rare design and dimensions. Vogue Vol. 59, 15 May 1922: p. 33
In addition to its uses in fashion, shagreen was popular for furniture inlays, cases for scientific instruments and cutlery, and desk accessories such as stamp cases, calendar frames, and bell pushes. It is rather nubbly in texture and is usually dyed a soft, arsenical green colour. The parlourmaids will attest that the texture gives it a special propensity to collect dust.
Mrs Daffodil invites you to join her on the curiously named “Face-book,” where you will find a feast of fashion hints, fads and fancies, and historical anecdotes
You may read about a sentimental succubus, a vengeful seamstress’s ghost, Victorian mourning gone horribly wrong, and, of course, Mrs Daffodil’s efficient tidying up after a distasteful decapitation in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales.