Obsolete Fashion: What Do You Know About the Zibellino?

Examples of the zibellino in  “Portrait of a Lady” by Bernardino Luini and “Antea” by Parmigianino.

Whether you’re a Renaissance Classicism connoisseur, a Medieval hygiene expert, or simply someone who sat through Art History 101, you’ve undoubtedly seen today’s object of Obsolete Fashion. The zibellino, or “flea fur,” was a popular fur accessory carried by the hand, over the shoulder, or around the neck of men and women throughout the late 16th and early 17th century. After the jump, learn more about this unique ornament.

Zibellinos originated as a means to ward off fleas or flies using the entire pelt of martens, sables, lynx or ermines. The idea was that these furry accessories would attract unwanted fleas, who would burrow into the fur pelt of the accessory rather than the zibellino bearer’s clothing or skin. From there, one could simply shake off the zibellino, and voilà! No need to worry about flea infestation! What these furry accessories lacked in practicality they made up for in notoriety. To hold a zibellino during a portrait sitting, or take a zibellino with you all the way to the grave, indicated your high social standing and wealth.

Women carried zibellinos adorned with gold and jewels as a subliminal way to show everyone else just how much their estate was worth. In Bologna, the excessive decoration of zibellinos got so out of hand the government was forced to issue a decree banning the decoration of zibellinos with gold, pearls or precious stones. Soon thereafter, Milan banned use of pearls and stones on zibellinos, and finally, in 1575, Cesena, Italy banned carrying zibellinos altogether!

A few centuries later, women continued to carry zibellinos, or at least an updated version of the bizarre accessory. During the 1920s and 1930s, fur stoles became extremely popular, not for their flea-repelling qualities, but rather for their sophistication and warmth.

Thankfully, in today’s modern world, one does not need to worry about obtaining fleas (generally) or using real animal fur as a fashion accessory. Plenty of faux fur, fashionable accessories exist on today’s market, including the adorable Wild Weather Hand Warmer, the Feminine and Feline Cape, and the Stole-n Glances Scarf.

What do you think of the zibellino?

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  1. RachelC 10/26/2010 at 4:24 pm #

    Wow. Nice. 😉

  2. Julie (ModCloth) 10/26/2010 at 4:56 pm #

    It’s interesting to know they originated with a purpose, I had no idea! Also, the Stole the Show Cardigan is another example of the vintage fashion revived in a modern way. Awesome post! http://www.modcloth.com/store/ModCloth/Womens/Tops/Stole+the+Show+Cardigan

  3. Trishna 10/26/2010 at 7:40 pm #

    This was a really really awesome post, just another reminder that a lot of fashion accessories we know of actually had practical purposes some time in history. 🙂

  4. Rachel 10/27/2010 at 7:32 am #

    You see, if I’d been learning about things like this in Art History I wouldn’t have given the subject up after a year!

  5. Kaleigh 10/27/2010 at 9:44 am #

    I have my BA in Art History and have NEVER heard of the zibellino before! So interesting, and a fun fact to pass on to my students one day after grad school! Thanks!

  6. Amanda 10/27/2010 at 10:17 am #

    Now this is a cool post. For reals. Awesome fashion history that I didn’t even learn getting a Masters in Theatre.

  7. Victoria / Justice Pirate 10/27/2010 at 11:04 am #

    very interesting! one of my friends is a trapper for a certain state. very interesting to learn some history for fur wearing.

  8. Danielle 01/04/2011 at 8:40 pm #

    My Mom inherited one of these from her grandmother when she died – probably from the 20s.

  9. Jaime 05/17/2011 at 5:24 pm #

    Unfortunately, I don’t agree with your last sentiment. I’ve had an infestation of bedbugs that started summer of 2009, that either came from my bf’s travel, or other apartments/people’s travel. Having bedbugs in america does not mean you are dirty. It comes from contact with other places that have them. They are parasites, so blood is all they really want. Anyway, my point is, since the ordeal (and it is one) when getting pest services for the 2nd time (1st didnt kill them) the woman said this whole bedbug infestation in america comes from all the international traveling going on. And, other countries (china, india, etc) have them obviously, that’s where it comes from, but they’re just used to it. And, about fleas, I feed some homeless cats that I found in our complex, and they have fleas, and it’s easy to catch them and get bites from being around the cats (tho they can’t technically live on humans, just animals) And, my friend liz just recently had a flea problem with her cats, and had to get the whole house treated for it.
    Sorry for the long ramble, but it was honest and I just wanted to put my own opinion from my experience in there bc i felt a bit frustrated reading that last part about it not being a problem nowadays. bugs and parasites still definitely are a problem.

  10. derrilynnee 12/02/2011 at 3:40 am #

    You may be interested to know that you can also find out what their fashions and accesories tell you about the identity of these two dear ladies of the Renaissance:





    Its fascinating!

  11. Holly 07/02/2012 at 12:01 am #

    Zibellini have fascinated me for years now! There is an excellent article by Tawny Sherrill in “Medieval Clothing and Textiles 2” which you might find interesting. One thing that’s been disproven is the theory that they were worn to attract fleas to the pelt instead of the person. Fleas feed on blood, and since a stuffed pelt would have no blood, it wouldn’t attract any fleas. I know of no references, in period, to them being called flea furs, but rather zibellini (plural), zibellino (singular), or just simply by the type of pelt used (e.g. “sable”). It’s believed that they were first called flea furs by Wendelin Boeheim in 1894, centuries after zibellini had fallen out of style.

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