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Zarafa the Giraffe – A Fashion Icon and Trendsetter in Paris


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12/18/21

The Nubian Giraffe Zarafa

Have you ever heard about Zarafa the Giraffe? Zarafa was the first giraffe in Paris and a fashion icon in the 1820s. Zarafa, a Nubian beauty, was what we would call today a trendsetter in Paris!

Zarafa was a diplomatic gift from Mohemed Ali, Viceroy of Ottoman Egypt, to King Charles X of France. She was also one of the first three giraffes in Europe, only preceded by the Medici Giraffe sent to Florence three centuries before.

At that time, the giraffe Zarafa lived peacefully in Alexandria (Egypt), and the journey to transport it to France by boat was epic. Keep on reading…

From Marseille to Paris

The journey from Alexandria in Egypt to Marseille in France needed some preparation, mainly because of the size of the precious animal. Zarafa the giraffe, traveled on a special boat with the deck altered to stick her head out through a hole. She arrived in Marseille in October 1826.

Marseille in October was a cool place to be but definitely colder than her hometown in Egypt. To brave the winter in France, the giraffe Zarafa was dressed in a tailored coat and carefully transported to Paris by what seemed the least dangerous way: on foot!

During this 880 Km trip that lasted six weeks, Zarafa the giraffe was accompanied by her two Sudanese caretakers, the Director of the Jardin des Plantes in Paris, and a few milk cows to provide her with drinking milk.

The caravan walked through Aix-en-Provence, Avignon, Montélimar, Vienne, and so on. To see a giraffe for the first time was an extraordinary thing for the French, and in each place, the giraffe Zarafa generated a genuine uproar. Before arriving in Paris, Zarafa was already a superstar!

Zarafa the Giraffe in Paris

Finally, the giraffe Zarafa arrived in Paris in 1827, where King Charles X welcomed her. She found a home at the Jardin des Plantes (known at that time as Jardin du Roi) in Paris 5.

During her first months in Paris, some 600,000 visitors stopped by to see the giraffe Zarafa. With her long neck, seductive eyes, and moving with surprising elegance, Zarafa was very hot! Some people called her ‘la Belle Africaine’ (the Beautiful African), while others simply called her ‘the giraffe’ because there were no others.

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Giraffe Mania in Paris

Zarafa the giraffe became a sensation in the French capital to the point that Zarafa made her mark on fashion in Paris.

Everything was ‘giraffe fashion,’ and the giraffe mania was everywhere: giraffe-themed fabrics and hairstyles (inspired by the animal’s horns) for ladies; giraffe-themed wallpapers for home;  porcelain, accessories, combs, soap, and fans with the image of Zarafa for visitors… Zarafa was a real trendsetter!

The giraffe mania faded by 1830, together with the reign of King Charles X. However, the giraffe Zarafa lived peacefully until 1845, after which she was taxidermied. She’s still on view at the Muséee d’Histoire Naturelle in La Rochelle, western France.

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