Coats of Many Eras: Fur, Fashion, and Ethics

Open­ing image: Ann-Mar­garet Ols­son in 1960

Words Eloise Hallo

Fur, though new­ly a top­ic of con­tention, boasts a fash­ion his­to­ry longer than near enough any medi­um in cur­rent trend. Burlap and linen may have their moments, but nei­ther can quite con­tend with fur’s impres­sive­ly endur­ing over 2000-year span of both prac­ti­cal­i­ty and, most essen­tial­ly, glam­our. It is this mat­ri­mo­ny that secures the textile’s place in a prover­bial hall of fame to its kind, chang­ing in each era and in so defin­ing, more often than not, its own catch­ment of trend. Indeed, not as if some clutch­ing spin­ster to the fash­ion world but, in each decade, a young and mod­ern adap­ta­tion — a ver­i­ta­ble queen bee. Yet, it is this very spot­light that’s seen recent years call into ques­tion the moral­i­ty of such out­dat­ed a cloth. In a world of grow­ing con­ver­sa­tion sur­round­ing sus­tain­able con­sump­tion, the reign of fur had to, at some point, meet expec­tant oppo­si­tion. And this, my read­er, is where we find our­selves now: stuck debat­ing faux or no, if either is tru­ly bet­ter or if, in fact, the choice to wear fur alto­geth­er — real or oth­er­wise — is an abject show of man’s need to express domin­ion over things. It wouldn’t, how­ev­er, be much of a debate sans con­text, so, let’s explore the his­to­ry. 

The his­to­ry of fur would be more apt­ly termed pre-his­to­ry. The evi­dence that Nean­derthals and oth­er ear­ly humans donned the tex­tile is, though there, unnec­es­sary; such fact is wide­ly known and rather tight­ly bound to the layman’s idea of caveman’s cos­tum­ing. Reli­gious scrip­ture and oth­er lat­er writ­ings sup­port both that hides and skins were worn and raise, for the first time, the idea of such medi­ums being prefer­able — because, to para­phrase, why wear fig leaves when you could wear arc­tic fox? This fork in fur’s path, from hum­ble prac­ti­cal­i­ty to agreed supe­ri­or­i­ty — though seem­ing­ly minor — meant an impor­tant change. Not so dis­sim­i­lar to our soci­ety today, when con­sid­ered bet­ter, so soon fol­lows exclu­siv­i­ty, which is pre­cise­ly what hap­pened in medieval Eng­land. The Appar­el Act of the 1480s decreed that fur and leather were to be worn and decid­ed based on and by class. Coun­try­men had to prove a year­ly earn­ing over £40 to wear any­thing oth­er than lamb­skin, and sex work­ers, ‘com­mon har­lots’ as the bill lov­ing­ly terms them, could be eas­i­ly dis­cerned by striped hoods they were made to wear and their fur­less-ness, being banned from wear­ing it with­in city lim­its. These laws, which pro­fessed the inten­tion of sit­u­at­ing the ‘good and noble’ from, what one must assume, the bad and igno­ble, tied the issue of fur to that of social class and set a prece­dent which per­sists today. 

Such sta­tus sym­bol­ism is most evi­dent when we cat­a­pult for­ward from the 15th cen­tu­ry to the 20th. Though coats and oth­er gar­men­try of the ear­ly 1900s would be in no way as illus­tri­ous as furs to fol­low in the ’50s and ’60s, in both eras, women, pri­mar­i­ly, were social­ly sit­u­at­ed by both the ani­mal and amount of fur they could afford, some being deemed so pre­cious that they could be insured along­side jew­ellery, and invit­ing mid-cen­tu­ry idioms like ‘a touch of mink’, which described a wealthy woman, adver­saried by ‘a lit­tle bit rab­bit’ which cru­el­ly con­demned those oth­er­wise. And, as is often true in fash­ion his­to­ry, such sen­ti­ments were con­firmed by stars of the sil­ver-screen. Once char­ac­terised by bash­ful pin-curled celebri­ties who could well-expend fur at its extremes, like Eartha Kitt and Eliz­a­beth Tay­lor, it became, not least a thing of a lux­u­ry, but a thing of celebri­ty itself, and as such, all the more exclusive.

Mod­ern con­cep­tions of fur don’t stray far from this imag­ing. In art, as in life, many of our famed fash­ion fig­ures are char­ac­terised by their incline to adorn the medi­um. Anna Win­tour, Mar­got Tenen­baum (of Wes Anderson’s The Roy­al Tenen­baums), and the super­mod­els of the 90’s perch likened in this respect. Sim­ply, fur’s tan­ta­lis­ing and long-endem­ic sta­tus sym­bol firms its place in high fash­ion cycli­cal­ly, in a way we col­lo­qui­alise by terming it ‘time­less’.


And, though ‘time­less’, its place in con­tem­po­rary soci­ety has not been seam­less. It is, in fact, eas­i­er these days to find fur-relat­ed con­tro­ver­sy than it is to find fur-endors­ing run­way; who’d have thought a lit­tle red Dulux could so thor­ough­ly ward off our eccen­tric fash­ion over­lords? Most notably, as I am indeed now not­ing, was PETA’s slew of celebri­ty ter­ror­ism, where­by paint was thrown at glam­orous­ly fur-donned ladies like Joan Rivers to emu­late the blood­lust of the indus­try, bring­ing new life to the term ‘red scare’. 

Adjoin­ing such gim­mick in sen­ti­ment and shock-fac­tor were the noto­ri­ous ‘Gise­le Fur Scum’ tres­passers to the Vic­to­ri­a’s Secret show of 2002. Julien Mac­don­ald, Jean Paul Gau­ti­er, and Burber­ry would join this fate­ful list: all three hous­es hav­ing now tak­en hia­tus from its use. These activist suc­cess­es bore a new kind of pop­u­lar­i­ty to the eth­i­cal con­cerns which had been oth­er­wise scoffed off by the sug­ges­tion that crit­ics sim­ply couldn’t afford such lux­u­ries, that they had — if my read­er will for­give me — FUR-M‑O. PETA’s 1994 Cam­paign ‘I’d Rather Go Naked Than Wear Fur’, fea­tured some of the era’s high­est paid mod­els, and clear­ly part-time hyp­ocrites, pub­licly con­demn­ing its wear, leav­ing us with the found­ed irres­o­lu­tion that these days high fash­ion isn’t quite sure how to feel about fur.

Sheryll Lee for PETA (1997)

In 2018, Guc­ci banned fur in its col­lec­tions; Zara pledged to do the same by 2020; and, since 2015, fur sales decreased from a 40 bil­lion prod­uct to one, in 2019, worth 7 bil­lion USD less. We would be remiss, how­ev­er, to for­get that fig­ure remains dou­ble what the glob­al fur indus­try was worth in 2011, mean­ing PETA’s cru­sade has not been as effec­tu­al as appear­ances let on, and that some of us can’t help but reach for the same ‘touch of mink’ as our foremothers.

Trend pre­dic­tions dic­tate fur is back in a big way this win­ter, and new argu­ments that crit­i­cise fast fashion’s men­tal­i­ty toward the pro­duc­tion and over­con­sump­tion of micro-plas­tic-based faux fur, as an alter­na­tive, remind us that the car­bon foot­prints of such alter­na­tives prove they’re not always preferable.

The sen­ti­ment remains that, to some, the con­cept of wear­ing fur and ani­mal hides more gen­er­al­ly is abject and prim­i­tive, par­tic­u­lar­ly when there exist so many sub­sti­tutes. Unfor­tu­nate­ly, com­pound­ing is it that the medi­um can­not be removed from its ties to sta­tus and class divi­sion.  Be it then faux or not so, ‘fur’ upholds the con­tention it’s held since ear­ly occu­pa­tion of fash­ion in our world; a reminder of man’s need to boast domin­ion over its plan­et and that with which we share it, whether it be ’com­mon har­lots’ or the hum­ble lamb. Per­haps it is enough to buy vin­tage, as I will admit I do, or per­haps fur should be avoid­ed alto­geth­er. Regard­less, it’s arc­tic out there, so what­ev­er coat you wear, wear one! And, per­haps all we can say with cer­tain­ty is that mink’s moral objec­tiv­i­ty is to be decid­ed by its wearer.