However much you know giraffes, to see one in the wild for the first time feels prehistoric.’ So said the anthropologist, Jane Goodall, world-renowned for her work with chimpanzees in East Africa. Most of Kenya’s visitors would agree with her. That first sighting of a giraffe against the wilderness background is a show-stopper. It’s not just its phenomenal height that captivates, or even the incredible length of its neck. It’s the sublime grace of its gait, the geometric complexity of its coat and the gently enquiring gaze of its extravagantly lash-fringed eyes.
Imagine then, what it must have been like to see a giraffe wearing a two-tone yellow taffeta raincoat. And boots. In Paris. In 1825, when nobody had ever seen a giraffe before. Startling? Indeed. But such was the attire of Zarafa, a young Nubian giraffe, at her Paris debut.
Even more startling is the tale of how she got there.
Zarafa was captured by Arab hunters in Sudan. Such was her beauty that the Viceroy of Egypt decided to give her as a gift to the French king, Charles X. This posed a problem: how to get her to Paris? The answer was ingenious. She was transported to Khartoum on the back of a camel; sailed down the Nile to Alexandria on a dhow and set sail for Marseille in a ship with a hole cut through the deck through which she poked her neck. She was accompanied by three Arab cows who provided her with milk, and a retinue of Arab servants. Safely arrived in Marseille, Zarafa and her cavalcade then walked 900km to Paris.
However, lest she be rained upon, a light coat was made out of waxed yellow taffeta. And boots were made for her feet.
The journey to Paris took 41 days during which time Zarafa became a superstar. In Lyons, she was met by a crowd of 30,000; in Paris she was mobbed by 100,000 people as an incredible one-in-eight Parisians turned out to see her. The king, on being presented to her, was so enchanted that he gave her a garden in the Chateau of Saint-Cloud.
And thereafter giraffe mania soared. Zarafa, whose names means ‘the beautiful one’ in Arabic, became known as ‘the beautiful African’, ‘the king’s beautiful beast’ or simply ‘her highness.’ And in this instance the pun was intended because Zarafa had grown on her travels and was now 4 metres high.
She was also the height of fashion. Ladies piled their hair into dizzying structures known as La mode à la giraffe, spotted gowns went wild; and anything in the shade known as ‘belly of giraffe’ galloped off the shelves. Nor did it end there: Honoré de Balzac wrote a story about Zarafa, the best artists of the day painted her portrait, her image appeared on porcelain and jewellery alike; and a special cake was named after her. Zarafa, however, let none of this go to her lofty head.
Instead she remained calm and well-mannered throughout (but for a brief fracas with an old lady in Lyons to whose cap she took exception to). The story ends happily: for 18 years Zarafa held court in her royal garden attended by her cows, her Arab groom and her faithful Sudanese servant, Atir. When she died, she was stuffed and displayed in the Museum of La Rochelle. And she remains there still.
Zarafa was not, however, the first giraffe to cause a stir. The legendary Egyptian queen, Hatshepsut (1508-1478 BC) kept one in her menagerie and was reputedly so enchanted by it that she caused its image to be carved into the wall of her temple in Luxor.
Julius Caesar transported a giraffe by sea to Europe in 46 BC. Not sure what to call it, he decided that camelopardalis (camel-leopard) would do. It’s a title the giraffe bears still in its species name: giraffa Camelopardalis.
A thousand years later the Chinese navigator, Zheng He, presented three giraffes to the Chinese emperor and such was their success that it was thought they were mythical creatures, similar to unicorns, and imbued with supreme wisdom and benevolence.
In 1486, the arrival of a giraffe in the Italian city of Florence caused a frenzy of fashionable excitement. Sent by the Sultan of Egypt to Lorenzo de Medici, the giraffe was tame enough to be hand-fed by the aristocratic ladies of the city. And such was its fame that an entire district was named after it: the Contrada della Giraffa.
No surprise then, that the autumn fashions for 2018 are dominated by animal prints, and that giraffe print is, once again, where it’s at.