September 7, 2013

The Myth of the Bearskin Diaper

Tell me who this is:

ssoc index

It is, of course, Conan the Barbarian, as represented in the Savage Sword of Conan comic. Even if you weren’t quite a fan, you probably recognized the character by his trademark bearskin diapers. The Hollywood posters did nothing to dispel this image:

conan82 images

Know something funny? Robert E. Howard, Conan’s creator, hardly ever described the character wearing nothing but a fur loincloth. He wore armor whenever he could, and usually wore the local clothing. Time and again the stories set in Iranistan, Shem, Turan and thereabouts had Conan wearing burnoose and kaffiyeh, or ‘hill tribesmen’s garb’ or the gaudy silken pantaloons of the kozaki. Whenever Conan was in the military, he would usually be in armor: in Beyond the Black River, he wears chain mail even in the depths of the Pictish forest, having ‘carefully oiled the links so they would make no sound.’ In the pirate adventures with the Barachans, Conan even puts on the rather anachronistic but iconic greatcoat and hat.

Even the 1982 movie actually got this right, it’s just that we tend to remember it for the iconic images where Ahnold is showing a lot of skin.  But guess what, Conan’s every appearance in fur loincloth is justified in Milius’ movie. He wears armor whenever he can get it, as seen below during the climactic battle at the standing stones:


In the ‘82 movie, Conan is semi-naked only when a) he is, or just came out of, captivity; b) when he’s training; and c) when he’s trying to move stealthily, as in the raid on Thulsa Doom’s hideout. So where did this penchant for the bearskin diaper come from? It probably began with the Margaret Brundage covers for Weird Tales, which tried to sell the magazine on sex appeal:

brundage images

This was carried on by Frank Frazetta and later Conan illustrators such as John Buscema, Ernie Chan, Rudy Nebres, and others on the pages of Savage Sword of Conan and Conan the Barbarian:

ssoc 52-1

sssoc1 images


Like Brundage, these 60s and 70s artists understood the primal appeal of rippling muscles and violent, dominant poses. The fur loincloth would then become a visual shorthand for Conan, which along with his long hair would keep the character in permanent contrast to the civilized milieu he often moved in. The Italian ‘peplum’ movies of the 1950s and 60s also must’ve influenced the look: like the Conan series, these films would feature oiled bodybuilders in short kilts.


Unfortunately this trend would go into the ridiculous, often depicting the Cimmerian in bearskin diapers even in situations where he wouldn’t have worn them in the Howard originals: I remember one moldering copy of SSOC where Conan runs around the deserts with the Zuagir tribesmen wearing only a fur loincloth and horned helmet! (Oh, and boots. Mustn’t forget boots.)

Make no mistake: I enjoy the art of SSOC and Frazetta and all their spiritual heirs. But when I read a Conan story, or craft a Cimmerian-like barbarian character, my mind’s eye will use images like this:


Because the thought of all that fur … there … makes me … itchy.


  1. I agree. I think that last picture a great representation of what a Cimmerian warrior would look like.


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