Login Register

Practicality and Design – A Brief History of ‘Zoo Fashion’

A uniformed man feeding an alligator at an alligator farm (possibly the California Alligator Farm, Los Angeles), ca.1900 (source: Wikimedia Commons)I am usually amazed by how some visitors dress for visiting a zoo. Have you ever seen the provincial family in their Sunday best? Or have you met the elegant lady staggering as a new-born camel in high-heeled shoes on the dirty pathway? Or the guy sweating in survival equipment in a tropical house in the middle of a city? Experienced visitors, on the other hand, choose the most appropriate clothes for visiting a zoo, of course. But how do zoo workers dress? Do they wear convenient and practical clothes, or should they accept other aspects as well?

Zoo employees are an important part of the whole design like in any other branch of entertainment. The visitors expect to see the workers as the representatives of this strange and fabulous world. In other words, a lot of visitors regard zoo workers as living in a dream world; so their appearance should reflect this expectation. It is also important that visitors can identify insiders quickly; zoo managers should facilitate this too, leading to uniforms.

However, work at a zoo is often dirty and difficult. Thus practicality should be a very important factor as well. Imagine how would you look in your light coloured clothes after helping at a problematic camel birth? Nothing like Dr. Dolittle in the Hollywood movies...

Finally, which criteria should be considered the best? Below I am going to try to summarize the changes from ancient zoos to present ideas. However, if you find this story too subjective – it is not unintended...

Giraffe keeper from EgyptArticles about zoo history always start the story in the Ancient Age, so let’s see the first zoo workers – depicted on old reliefs and paintings. The first zoo might have been operated in Hierakonpolis (Egypt) 5500 years ago. However, nothing special can be seen on the Egyptian keepers, they look like any other workers in that era. The soldiers and priests dressed as their colleagues – we can discover the first signs of the later zoo ‘military’ style. However, some interesting tools can be discovered too, a long ankus, for example, to control the giraffes. In another Ancient realm monkeys and big carnivores were often led on a leash – yes, it is no doubt that the Assyrian warriors were the toughest guys.

Assyrian zookeepers on the Black obelisk of Shalmaneser III (source: The Project Gutenberg Wiki, www.gutenberg.org)

As it is well known, medieval people lived, slept and made love in iron armour, and zoo keepers – after fighting each other and slaying an impolite dragon – cleaned the small menageries of lions in this protective helmet. Or is it a misconception? It was less romantic; zookeepers in the medieval courtyard were poor servants very similar to the others. They didn’t have money to buy the very expensive helmets which the warlords ironed out on each other during weekend skirmishes. So zoo workers wore light clothes, according to the current fashion. Fashion in the Dark Ages? Yes, it is a mistake to consider medieval people to be dull characters; every-day fashion was at the least similar, or even crazier than in our age. For example, it is horrible just to imagine their very tight pants...

Tiergarten Königsberg Elefant, 1908 (source: Wikimedia Commons)We got to the birth of modern zoos, when these institutes opened their gates to the public. They were parks, so the workers also looked like park guards – in their soldier-like uniforms, wearing dense moustache and peaked caps. I think these could not have been too comfortable, but visitors must have honoured and feared these strict-looking guys. They may have represented the colonial army in these colonial exhibitions.

After the bloody world wars, these old soldier-like uniforms lost their popularity. Practicality was winning, workers started to dress as technicians. Light caps, overalls or military training trousers, high boots, plaid or khaki shirts, so finally they looked like a member of a service company. Until now this style persisted, workers dress this way in many zoos, choosing more or less military-style clothes. Maybe too much military...

A  modern zoo keeper fashion (Australia Zoo, Queensland, source: Wikimedia Commons)Although it is a very practical fashion, we have to admit it is still not too familiar… When zoos started to establish the image of natural conservation sites, and on top of that the media discovered them, zoo design changed and the fashion with it too. Now the representatives of zoos are not tough guys, mostly kind and smiling ladies wearing light, safari-like clothes can be seen in zoo advertising material. These clothes are still uniforms, but rather represent the researching, educational work and family friendliness of zoos. As the visitors come on a big adventure, employees play the role of adventurers who help them. Baseball caps or adventure hats, light shirts, Bermudas with leather belts and terrain boots – usually in light colours and youthful – is the trend now in the world of zoos, but we know that eventually everything will change… Would you like it?

Pont Scorff Zoo (France) showed an even more natural fashion in their employee calendar. You can see some photos from it here (from page 133).

You have no rights to post comments

Enter the zoo world!