Human Leather | The Secrets of a Controversial Material

human leather

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Many fashions are temporary, but some looks seem to last for generations. Whether it's three-piece suits, your favorite pair of jeans, or old leather jackets, many styles are just timeless. If you love wearing leather, you're probably an enthusiast of the innovations in the field. But even the most enthusiastic of you might be hesitant about this one. Because if any animal skin can be used to create leather, it stands to reason that human skin can be used as well...

Leather made from human skin is nothing new, fans of the Resident Evil movies or the novels of H. P. Lovecraft knows what I'm talking about. However, there is a difference between reading a good horror story and seeing some of these morbid ideas in real life.

Serial killer Ed Gein is one of the best known examples in this "field". But nowadays you don't have to be a corpse thief to get your shoes made of human leather. Although it may seem that this practice has all but disappeared, the website HumanLeather.co.uk offers items made from real human leather.

The site claims to sell perfectly legal, custom-made luxury goods to a small but demanding clientele. Well disguised hoax or not, you can try it for yourself if you have $14,000 to spend on a human skin wallet. Not sure you'll have much money left over to put in it after you pay. 💲

So, who wants to buy a human leather accessory?

According to the site's FAQ, they want to keep their offerings limited, as they are the only company in the world that makes these products. As for their suppliers, the site claims that donors bequeath their skins before they die and their loved ones are generously rewarded. Not all skins are accepted though, only high quality skins are retained, so if you want to make your family rich before you die, take good care of your skin.

If this story wasn't strange enough, the site strangely closed down a few years ago because their order numbers became "too large". However, it says that the site will soon reopen.

The legality of human leather goods is rather unclear. Especially regarding the possession of these objects, because if you own one of these objects, it is probably okay.

Vintage Laptop Rucksack

GÖTEBORG

VINTAGE LAPTOP RUCKSACK

Vintage Canvas Backpack

HELSINKI

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REYKJAVIK

RETRO CANVAS RUCKSACK

Different examples of the use of human leather in history

The history of human leather is particularly disturbing, there are traces of objects made from human skin on all continents. 🌍

For example, a Nigerian and Cameroonian people called Ekoi once created large, multi-faced masks for rituals and celebrations. Several materials were used in their construction, which were then covered with the skin of their slaves. Practices have changed and tanned antelope skin is now used.

Other traces have been found in Japan, where some tattoo artists were respected for the complexity of their work. Their work was so highly regarded that anonymous investors paid for people close to death to have their entire bodies tattooed so that they could keep the skin after their deaths.

During the Jim Crow regime, the skin of some dead African and African American slaves was used to make shoes. According to Dr. David Pilgrim, an American lecturer and expert on multiculturalism, diversity and race relations, this practice was not widespread, but it did exist.

Even more surprisingly, records in the daily newspaper "The Mercury News" from 1888 mention a doctor who owned coloured men's shoes. He insisted that the tanned skin of an African is the strongest and softest leather known to man. 👞

 " I suppose you mean to inquire if I still wear shoes made of the skin of a negro. I certainly do, and I don't propose changing in that respect until I find a leather that is softer and will last longer and present a better appearance. I have no sentiment about this matter. Were I a Southerner - in the American sense of the word - I might be accused of being actuated by a race prejudice. But I am a foreigner by birth, although now an American citizen by naturalization. I fought in the rebellion that the blacks might be freed. I would use a white man's skin for the same purpose if it were sufficiently thick, and if any' one has a desire to wear my epidermis upon his feet after I have drawn my last breath he has my ante mortem permission."

LEATHER FROM HUMAN SKIN [Philadelphia News.] Printed in The Mercury, Saturday March 17, 1888

Unfortunately, this doctor is not an unusual case, a multitude of objects made from African and African-American skin have been found during this period in the United States.

Not so much surprisingly, there are stories of artefacts made from human skin during the Holocaust, in concentration camps. It is no secret that many Nazi scientists put into practice ideas from the worst nightmares imaginable. Whether resistance fighters, black allied soldiers, political prisoners, homosexuals or Jews, at least two human leather objects, probably more, were found in a concentration camp.

There are other uses of human leather in history that are much more... artistic if I dare say so. To avoid you vomiting while reading this article, I will spare you the details and the most morbid objects that I could find during my research, and believe me, there were many. But let's focus on the most striking relics made of human skin.

ekoi ritual masks

Photo: Ji-Elle / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 3.0

Significant objects made of human skin

Throughout history, there have been many objects made from human skin, but should you make art with human skin?

Book bound with human skin kept in the Harvard Library

Let's start with the book Des Destinées de L'âme published in 1879 by Arsène Houssaye, a French man of letters. The idea of covering his book with human skin did not come from the author himself, but from his friend Dr Ludovic Bouland, a bibliophile in his spare time. The doctor thought: a book on the human soul bound with human skin, what a good idea! The skin used to bind the book was that of one of his patients suffering from psychiatric disorders. Today, the relic is kept in the Harvard Library, which has confirmed the origin of the cover. 📙

This practice was more common than you might think, with some criminals writing down their confessions and binding them with their skins for a chance to go to heaven.  The doctor was careful to leave a note to explain his approach.

"This book is bound in parchment human skin, it is to leave it all its stamp that we have not applied any ornament. If you look at it carefully, you can easily see the pores of the skin. A book on the human soul deserved to be given a human garment, so I had long since reserved for it this piece of human skin taken from a woman's back.."

Other people also asked to be immortalised in book form to stay with their family or lover. When it comes to love, death and tragic fate, I prefer Romeo and Juliet.

des destins de l'ame

The Collection of the Infamous Ed Gein

I have already briefly mentioned the infamous Ed Gein (1906-1984), the American serial killer and body thief between 1954-1957. How can you do an article on human leather without doing a paragraph or two on 'The Butcher of Plainfield' (Wisconsin) that inspired so many vilains such as Leatherface in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Norman Bates in Psycho or Buffalo Bill in the Silence of the Lambs.

Ed Gein's youth was not a smooth one. He was raised by his mother Augusta, a manipulative, psychotic, notorious religious fanatic and single mother following the death of her husband - Ed's father - George, himself an alcoholic in 1940. Ed subsequently lost his brother (whose death some attributed to him) in 1941 and his mother in 1944.

He was later diagnosed with schizophrenia, and his psychological weakness due to the absence of his mother made him lose his footing. In order to resemble his mother, he began to dress like her. He desecrated and plundered the graves of women who looked like her in order to steal their clothes. This was not enough to calm his psychosis, so he quickly moved on to the next step: taking a life.

But Ed is a maniacal and horribly meticulous man, so after killing, dismembering and skinning women (alive or dead and dug up), he transformed their skin into different objects, from kitchen furniture to women's clothing.

Officially, he killed two women (some affirm that he killed 7 women and 2 children), a bar owner named Mary Hogan and a hardware store owner named Bernice Worden but his list of objects made from human skin and other parts is much longer. One of the difficulties in establishing the number of victims with certainty comes from the fact that Ed supplemented the bodies of his victims with parts of women unearthed in nearby cemeteries. Here is a non-exhaustive list of Eg Gein's morbid creations:

  • 🧥 Waistcoat : Wishing to resemble his late mother and not having at the time the modern surgical and hormonal techniques, Ed had to choose another way to mimic a breast: making a torso vest with the skin of a woman's upper body.
  • 📌 Wall hangings and other artefacts : The serial killer's house was littered with human body parts, sometimes alone, sometimes sewn together, sometimes mixed together. Investigators found a collection of noses, a box filled with vulvas, candles made from human skulls and even a wall tent.
  • 💃 Corset and belt : In order to complete his "woman's" outfit to resemble his mother as much as possible, Ed made a corset with the aim of refining his waist. In order to embellish this one, he made a belt only composed of nipples.
  • 🎭 Masks : The final touch of his morbid outfit, which was to complete his transformation, was obviously the mask. The investigators found in his house a dozen masks, all made by scalping the faces of his victims with great meticulousness, managing to keep most of the attributes of the face in question.
  • 🥣 Bowls, dishes and ashtrays : Not all serial killers have the imagination and morbid creativity of Ed Gein. He was fascinated by the skin of his victims, which he used for morbid purposes, but he did not leave out the remains of their bodies. For example, he used the skulls to make bowls, ashtrays or cutlery.
  • 🪑 Chairs : The parts of skin that could not be used to design his female disguise were also used to make other accessories, including chairs. These ones were designed with pieces of tanned human skin then sewn like a patchwork to each other.
  • 🛋 Lampshade : Killing, skinning and sewing were Ed's number one hobbies, but he loved to read books, often bizarre and just as morbid as himself, so his library was filled with the strangest works, mixing cannibalism, torture and extreme political ideas. What could be better than a bedside lamp made of a spine and a lampshade made of human skin to browse through these works of dubious taste? 
  • 👄 Curtain pulls : It is often said that the devil is in the detail, right? Ed was a man who paid attention to detail, so with the lips of the unfortunate Bernice Worden, he made a curtain pull, the pair of lips being sewn to the end of a string to open or close the curtains in his room.
  • 🧤 Gloves & Aprons : Ed also liked to make accessories to complete his outfit. The two most famous are a pair of gloves, a necklace made of tongues or an apron mixing nipples, faces, ears, eyes and other pieces of skin.

📷 Credit: Strange But True's Youtube Channel

The 17th Century Icelandic Myth of the Necropants

If all these everyday objects are too boring for you, I'm sure this story about Icelandic nábróks, or Necropants, will be imaginative enough for you! These are 17th century magical trousers made of human skin, or "corpse britches". The myth was born during a difficult period for the people of Iceland. Subjected to several natural disasters, poverty, ruthless political system and constant pirate raids, some desperate Icelanders turned to magic. 🧙‍♂️

📷 Credit: Slate's Youtube Channel

Some Icelanders thought that these pants were able to produce an infinite source of money. Why not? Beware, however, that in order to reach absolute wealth, it was first necessary to go through a series of incongruous and painful requirements.

In order to create this magnificent magical artifact, the wizard in charge of the ritual must first make a pact with a man that you will be allowed to skin his lower half after he dies and is buried. Wait for him to die, then dig him up and gently remove the skin from the entire lower half of his body without making any holes or tears.

The magician must then put the object on his bare skin. The ritual then involves stealing a coin from a poor widow and slipping it into the scrotum with the magic rune Nábrókarstafur. Then the scrotum is supposed to be perpetually filled with coins as long as the necropants is on. For the wizard to ensure the salvation of his soul, the trousers had to find a new owner before his dying, but that is a story for another day.

However, no evidence of the existence of nábróks has been found. The only remnants of this myth are very well made reproductions.

A replica[1] of necropants at The Museum of Icelandic Sorcery & Witchcraft in Holmavik, Iceland.[2] At the right of the pants is the magical symbol (nábrókarstafur) that is part of the ritual and at its feet are coins. The exhibit is behind glass and lit from above with a harsh yellow light.

A replica of necropants at The Museum of Icelandic Sorcery & Witchcraft in Holmavik, Iceland. 19 February 2011, Source: Necropants, Author: Bernard McManus from Victoria, BC, Canada, (CC BY 2.0)

Other relics that were found in the late 19th century

In addition to the doctor's shoes, other creepy relics were found in the late 19th century.

  • A matchbox covered with part of the skin of a beautiful young woman found drowned in the Delaware River.
  • A cigar case made from the skin of a coloured man.
  • An instrument case, entirely covered with leather made from an African skin.
  • A fine pair of dark slippers
  • etc.

The strange story of Big Nose George

During the same period, a thief nicknamed Big Nose George was hanged for his crimes. Before being buried, Dr John Osborne skinned George and turned him into a doctor's bag, a coin purse and a pair of shoes. How ironic to turn a thief into a purse...

shoes made of Big Nose George

Photo credit: CARBON COUNTY MUSEUM

Karl-Otto Koch’s lampshade

After the Second World War, it was reported that the Nazis had made at least one lampshade from murdered concentration camp inmates: a lampshade made of human skin is said to have been exhibited by Buchenwald concentration camp commander Karl-Otto Koch and his wife Ilse Koch , along with several other human skin artefacts. Traces of a Nazi photo album made of human skin were also found.

To end this section with a lighter touch, I would like to remind you that nowadays, examples of human skin objects are extremely rare. Moreover, today science is able to cultivate leather in laboratories. The genetic material is extracted and placed in a cell culture, then the cells are harvested and the skin tissue is tanned and turned into leather. But is it any less scary? 🔬

The "Alexander McQueen" case

Alexander McQueen was a British fashion designer who died on 11 February 2010. During his lifetime he was known as an "Enfant terrible" because of the sometimes provocative nature of some of his collections. He has also managed to make headlines since his death thanks to Tina Gorjanc, an artist and designer.

Tina Gorjanc made a name for herself with her project to create a tan bag, a freckled backpack and a tattooed jacket from the skin of the famous designer. As I explained earlier, science is able to grow cells from someone's DNA. The craziest part of this story is that she has filed a patent that would give her the right to create and market an entire collection of clothes made from human leather.

Several scientists claim that this is theoretically possible by extracting cells from McQueen's skin, then tanning it into leather. The project is called "Pure Human" by Tina Gorjanc, Central Saint Martins.

human leather jacket

Cultivated Human Leather Jacket by TINA GORJANC

Gorjanc does not really want to sell a collection of cultivated leather, but to criticise the legislation. "Even though the legislation says that genetic information in isolation cannot be patented, you can get around that and patent a material that uses that genetic information. Slowly, through genes, and then through larger organs, people are allowed to own a person, as happened in the days of slavery."

This powerful message highlights the shortcomings regarding biotechnology legislation. "If a student like me was able to patent material extracted from Alexander McQueen's biological information when there was no legislation to prevent me from doing so, one can only imagine what big companies with bigger funds will be able to do in the future. 

As well as being highly critical of the biotech legislation, Gorjanc is skilfully critical of the luxury market. Which seems to have no limits on what it is willing to do to have more and more extremely exclusive, rare and expensive products at the expense of ethics. 💎

If you could afford it, what would you do? Are McQueen's skin-cell accessories immoral or are you one of those who wouldn't hesitate to buy it? You wouldn't, right? It makes sense, you've just read Gorjanc's arguments, which openly criticise this idea, but think about it seriously, we are in a time where we are trying to find viable alternatives to the current clothing industry that is slowly destroying our planet.

Let's look at the pros and cons of cultured leather.

Pros and cons

Pros: 👍

  • ✔ Human skin is an abundant resource. As morbid as it may sound, my skin, your skin and the skin of every other human is potential leather. If science can grow skin cells more efficiently, the leather industry could have almost unlimited resources.
  • ✔ In a context where the clothing industry is increasingly looking for alternatives to address the climate change problem, this is a viable solution.
  • ✔ Fortunately, you don't have to be a serial killer to get hold of human skin - now you can do it by growing skin in a laboratory. Which is far less morbid.
  • ✔ Over a billion animals are killed every year for the leather trade, from cows to calves, lambs, goats, pigs, dogs and cats (at Eiken, our leather comes from beef production, no animals are killed exclusively for our bags.)
  • ✔ For some people, being turned into a leather accessory is a good way to be immortalised to stay with their family or lover.
  • ✔ Many people already donate their organs after death, is skin the next step?
  • ✔ Cultured leather seems to be an aesthetically pleasing leather with good qualities, as human skin is very similar to pig skin.

Cons: 👎

  • ❌ Obvious degradation of our mutual respect. Even with all the arguments I've given you, I bet most of you don't want to be turned into cultured leather.
  • ❌ At the moment, the only examples of cultivated leather are particularly expensive. The price might come down if it becomes more common, but it is a very small and exclusive customer base at the moment.
  • ❌ Cultured leather is much less disturbing than the old methods, but it is still a disturbing and morbid idea.
  • ❌ There are some boundaries that perhaps should not be crossed.
  • ❌ On the historical side, human leather has been used by slavers, Nazis or serial killers among others. Of course, the context was completely different, but it is difficult to argue against it.

To wrap up

We were living in a very strange time, on the edge of science fiction. Who knows what our clothes will be made of in 10 or 20 years. Whether you are for or against cultivated leather, we are interested in your humble opinion in the comments. On that note, I have a pair of trousers to make! 🤑

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📫Related Blog Posts:

📌  A Brief Story of Leather | History, Functions & Alternatives

📌  Faux Leather: Discovering Artificial & Natural Alternatives to Leather

📌  What is Bonded Leather? A Controversial Alternative to Real Leather

📌  Cactus Leather | Does it Live Up to the Hype?

📌  Vegan Leather | A Realistic Alternative to Real Leather


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