Fursuit of happiness

For people not happy in their own skins

Just because a product is legal, that doesn’t mean the people who buy it would like you to know that. To appreciate this, try loitering in a chemist’s and asking customers why, specifically, they bought their pills and ointments.

As with individual products, so it can be with entire markets. Consumers don’t talk about their involvement, and nor do suppliers. Consequently, many people may not realise the market even exists. But the internet has changed that. By bringing people together, in seeming privacy, it’s transformed scattered individuals into powerful confederacies of consumers.

Consider, for instance, the niche supported by people who, for a surprisingly wide variety of reasons, pass much of their time dressed as animals. Fursuiters, as they style themselves, spend a great deal of money on their hobby – if that’s the word to describe something that can take over the hobbyist’s entire life. For a start, furries (as they’re also known) need costumes, which can cost thousands of pounds apiece. Then there are accessories, including the cuddly toys which provide them with inspiration. For face-to-face gatherings – known as “confurences” – furries spend money on travel and hotels; and for their more frequent assemblies, online, they must pay phone companies and internet service providers.

Though still more numerous in the US than anywhere else, furries are increasingly common in Germany, Japan and the UK. (One group, the London Furs, boasts 141 members, who gather together every third Saturday to shop, eat, drink and party together.) They’re a mixed bunch, hard to characterise with precision; but after some hours absorbing what the world’s English-speaking furries write about themselves on the internet – which they do in great detail – it seems reasonable to submit some general observations. Some dress up just for laughs; some do it for work, as mascots; while others, much like transsexuals, feel profoundly unhappy in the bodies they were born with. A few act out grim fetishistic fantasies, on each other and on cuddly toys; but most are innocently obsessed by anthropomorphism – that is, they have yet to outgrow the cartoon characters of Walt Disney and Hanna-Barbera.

The furries in these pictures were captured in their natural habitat by photographer Mark Peterson only after he’d worked for months to win their trust. Must furries, stung by prior encounters with the media, told him flatly to leave them alone (usually in stronger language than that). But Rapid T Rabbit, who runs a puppet show on cable TV in New York, allowed Peterson to follow him round for a while. And in due course Rapid T Rabbit introduced Peterson to his friend Thaddeus Fox.

Both furries declined to be interviewed – as did the other furries Peterson photographed, with their consent, at a massive convention in Philadelphia – but they supplied written statements. Thaddeus Fox, a business communications technician called Joe Ekiatis, described himself as an “occasional dabbler in the graphic arts”, and gave the name of a website showcasing his sweetly funny anthropomorphic cartoons, anthro-animal-art.com. Rapid T Rabbit wrote: “It has been my dream to bring into existence a lovably furry character who can be representative of all the wonderful things that New York has to offer… His name is short for Rapid Transit Rabbit, because he’s the only bunny who actually takes the subways and buses to travel round the city, just like most New Yorkers.”

Conducting daily life from inside an animal suit is not easy. Unless the suit is fitted with a fan, you’ll get desperately hot, so it’s important to keep drinking fluids – but not too much, because a trip to the loo will be no joke. Inside elevators, stand away from the door in order to protect your snout, ears and tail. On stairs, always use the handrail, and turn your big feet sideways. Outside, on the streets, avoid groups of tough youths armed with matches or cigarette lighters, lest they set you on fire. But don’t even think of driving a motor vehicle, if your head is covered, unless you fancy showing off your costume to a magistrate. For similar reasons, if you’re planning to wear a fursuit to airports – or any other high-security location – you should phone ahead beforehand to check that’s alright.

Among other legal issues, there is copyright to consider. Characters such as Mickey Mouse and Bugs Bunny are extremely valuable to their copyright owners, Walt Disney and Warner Brothers, respectively. On fursuit.org, furries are advised not to bother seeking permission before dressing as a well known character: so long as the suit is worn at private functions, there should be no difficulty. But if it’s worn in public, the site warns, copyright holders will take a dim view – because they could potentially be held responsible for anything the character says.

In practice, fursuiters can easily get round the copyright issue by buying generic animal costumes from any of countless suppliers established on the internet. On mascotsunlimited.com, prices start at $500 and rise to five times as much. From Would You Believe? (wyb.com) most costumes cost between $800 and $900; the Nightmare Factory (nightmarefactory.com) is slightly cheaper.

Marylen Costume Manufacturing has been designing and manufacturing costumes since 1960. They’re fully lined, padded for a sculptured effect, and available in three sizes: the largest is for people no taller than 6’4”, with a 56” chest. Most of the fabrics in short pile are garish, but medium-pile cloths include patterns copied from nature: cheetah, cow, dalmation and tiger. Marylen currently offers no fewer than 1,500 designs, including 39 dog characters. Of these, several attempt to convey a realistic breed (terrier, dalmation, bloodhound, scottie) but others are more obviously cartoonish: English Bulldog, with monocle; Inspector Dog, with half-moon specs and deerstalker; and Hoe-Down Hound, wearing dungarees.

For fursuiters on a budget, second-hand costumes can be found on sites such as eBay. To avoid unpleasantness, these should be cleaned thoroughly before use, with carpet cleaners and antibacterial sprays. Alternatively, fursuiters could make their costumes themselves. One British adept, Oxfordshire-based Fish the Cat, explains on his site, fishthecat.co.uk, how he fashioned his remarkable outfit around a boiler suit, skiing gloves, an old pair of jeans, prosthetic ears and tinted contact lenses. Altogether, it took him 26 hours. And on fursuit.org, in a section entitled “offbeat ways of making bodysuits”, a character called Stego argues persuasively for making a full-body costume out of duct tape, which has the same consistency as Latex, but is a “helluva lot cheaper”. There’s just one drawback: “You’re going to sweat like you never sweated before.”

1095 words. First published 20 October 01. © FT Magazine