Animals have been the centerpiece of the human wardrobe since the start of fashion.

Real fur and animal skins were once a necessity for warmth but over time have been replaced by cheaper synthetic materials. Over the past 30 years, the fashion industry has been criticized by PETA activists for using real fur, so designers have sought out other, less controversial ways to continue incorporating animals into their collections.

While animal prints like leopard and zebra have been recycled on the runway for years, it’s the rise of more realistic images of animals that should be focused on. Last February, many collections showed a number of these items. Jill Stuart featured silkscreen printed dresses of owls and foxes; Givenchy showed an array of panther T-shirts for women, and Rottweiler-adorned button-downs for men.

Vintage T-shirts and sweatshirts featuring tranquil forest animals have long been seen on the racks of Urban Outfitters for ironic hipsters. But on Jan. 14, fashion blog showed how this trend trickled down to the masses. The blog posted a gallery of 10 different animal sweaters.

“Today, the sweaters on the market are a little less cheesy, a little less try-hard, but just as fun,” wrote Connie Wang, the website’s global editor.

The post offered a wide variety of clothes, from a wolf sweater from Zara as low as $19.99 to a white tiger sweater by Stella McCartney for $885, targeting fashionistas of different demographics.

Though animal imagery has been a huge focus of women’s wear, designers have taken a cue for their fall 2012 menswear collections. The New York Times reported that the runways in Milan were reminiscent of a zoo.

“A whale, a dinosaur, a hound, an owl, a duck, a fox, a chimpanzee, an eagle and small bear walked into Milan Fashion Week,” wrote Eric Wilson, a Times reporter. “And nobody laughed.”

There are two things to be said for this PETA-safe trend and why it will endure. First, fur and animal prints have become symbolic of status in our society, despite the fact that faux fur and cheap-stenciled leopard skin have become accessible to everyone. Wearing an animal makes a person feel expensive, even if the piece of clothing looks cheap. However, there is nothing truly glamorous about wearing a realistic depiction of an animal on your chest.

This trend fits perfectly into our society’s obsession with comfort and street style. For all we know, Riccardo Tischi, the designer at Givenchy, could have seen someone walking out of the Bronx Zoo wearing a panther print T-shirt and decided it was the inspiration for his next line.

Second, a screen printed or knitted 2D image of an animal connotes our generation’s other obsession — self-expression. It allows people to wear their emotions on their sleeve, literally.

“Whether you’re into foxes, peacocks or even raccoons, there’s an animal sweater out there for you — come find it!” Wang said.