INTRODUCTION TO FUR IN THE 20th CENTURY
ashion furs in dress remained a status symbol over the centuries as they denoted lineage, rank, class, and prosperity. At the end of the nineteenth century there was an increasing demand for fashion furs from the different social classes. Révillon Frères, a fur merchant company founded in Paris in 1723, capitalized on the call for affordable ready-to-wear fur garments, and by the 1860s the house had established fur boutiques in France, London, New York, and Montreal (Wikipedia). Their success encouraged the creation of a profitable retail fur industry in Europe and in North America.
Beginning in the 1840s, Europeans and North Americans started to wear animal furs on the outside of a garment. In the early 1900s, French fashion designers such as Madame Isidore Paquin (1869-1956), and Paul Poiret (1897-1944) introduced elegant fur garments in their regular fashion collections. Mme Paquin had developed a method of treating fur so that it would be softer and more comfortable to wear. Her fur coats and fur trimmed garments were in great demand by the socially prominent women of that period (Hansen, 1956, p. 100).
The new techniques in the dyeing of furs in bright colors, in laser cutting, in micro-shearing, in texturing, and in knitting and integrating fur with other fabrics has led to the marketing of products that are appealing to designers and consumers. Since 2000, designers have been creatively adapting the soft, fluffy and very light and brightly colored furs in their chic evening and daytime collections. In 2003-2004, over 170 fashion designers were working with fur, and since 2010 there have been more than 400 international designers who include fur in their collections (Fur Information Council of America, 2010; Goddard, 2011; Kastorian Fur, 2004; Tortora & Eubank, 2010, p. 585, 634).
Since the early 1900s, fur markets have been strongly influenced by changing fashion trends, and by economic and social forces. With the opening of vast Asian fur markets in recent years, we can surmise that in the future the demand for North American animal pelts will intensify, and that the prices of fashion furs will increase.
FUR MARKETS AND FASHION FURS, 1900-1940
The fur markets skyrocketed in Europe and in North America in the early 1900s, and reached their peak in the 1920s and 1930s. The most expensive furs on the market were sable, ermine, mink and fox. Furs such as racoon, beaver, and buffalo were deemed to be more affordable than the luxury furs. For those with a modest purse they could purchase furs such as moleskin, Hudson otter, and Siberian beaver. The lowest priced furs on the market included rabbit, nutria, skunk, and squirrel (Boucher, n.d., p. 400).
Dyhouse (2011), who studied fashion furs in England during the 1920s, concluded that two out of three women on any street in any English town would be wearing a fur coat, or one trimmed with fur. This data implies that the demand for animal pelts at fur auctions would have been astronomical. In her analysis of the Hudson Bay Company’s London bi-annual auction sale reports for 1930, Dyhouse found that many hundreds of thousands of fox, ermine, beaver, and mink pelts came under the hammer,” and that the range of species skinned “were equally mind-boggling and included badger, skunk, wolf, polecat, squirrel, musk ox, monkey, nutria, raccoon, wombat and wallaby.” In addition, she noted that even “hamsters and house cats were skinned for their fur.”
Popular Raccoon Coats
An innovation in the early 1900s which led to the demand for long fur coats was the development of the motor car. The early cars were open, and motoring in cool weather required warm and protective clothing. In the 1920s and 1930s racoon coats became the rage for motoring and attending sporting events. The fashionable racoon coats, worn by both men and women, were dark brown in color, and had a shawl collar and hefty leather buttons. For those who could not afford a coon coat, retailers offered lesser priced coats made out of sturdy lynx or sheepskin. The first wave of the raccoon coat fad ended with the dawn of The Great Depression (1929-1940). In 1956, the racoon coat saw a brief revival when young people started to purchase second-hand coonskin coats (Deluca, 2009; Schneider, 2012; Tortora & Eubank, 2010, p. 440, 466-467).
Stylish Women’s Fur Coats
Beginning in the 1920s, fashionable women were wearing ankle length fur coats with a tight fitting bottom, large fur collars, and very wide cuff sleeves. Coats fabricated out of long vertical strips of fur were quite popular. This silhouette remained in vogue up until around the 1960s (Hansen, 1956, p. 101).
Luxurious Fur Coats
According to Dyhouse (2011), in the 1930s fox became one of the most sought after furs. Wealthy women and the glamorous film stars were usually seen wearing mega white or grey fox coats. For example, in 1932, Lili Damita was dolled up in fox in the movie, the Match King, and in 1933, Mae West and Gertrude Michael were wrapped in white fox in the film, I’m no Angel (Fur Glamor, 2011). The film stars loved to show off their full length ermine and white fox coats when attending the Oscars. In 1931, for instance, Marie Dressler looked fabulous in an ermine coat which she wore over her black lace dress. In 1935, Claudette Colbert had a luxurious white fur coat draped on her arm when she accepted her award from Shirley Temple (Chase, 2003, p. 18, 25, 121).
Fur Stoles and Tippets
In 1917, Paul Poiret and other designers introduced fur stoles in their collections. These elegant fur pieces, which were thrown over the shoulders, remained stylish throughout the 20th century. In 1938, Mme Lanvin designed a thinner fur cape which could be wrapped around the shoulders. These capes came in a variety of short and long lengths (Hansen, 1956, p.102, 104; Laver 2002, p. 237).
The tippet, which had been in fashion in the eighteenth century, made a comeback between 1920 and 1940. Fashionable women would wear an animal skin around the neck like a scarf, and quite often the head and paws of the animal were retained for decoration (Fogg, 2009, p. 13, 47; Laver, 2002, p. 237; Tortora & Eubank 2010, p. 478-479).
Fur Trimmed Garments
Since the early 1900s, designers such as Jeanne Lanvin, Paul Poiret, Patou, Gabrielle Chanel, Pierre Cardin, and others, would use fur in abundance as trim for coats. In 1913, Paul Poiret introduced a charming demi-crinoline coat with fur trim at the bottom. Some of the popular trimmings over the years have included large and small fur collars, fur cuffs, and fur bands around the hems of winter coats. In 1938-1939 it was modish to trim a winter coat with a collar and pockets of fox, or to trim a coat with long vertical strips of fur (Boucher, n.d., p. 415; Fogg, 2009, p. 61, 86; Hansen, 1956, p. 61, 99, 100-103; Schneider, 2012).
Hand held fur muffs had been carried by women and men as far back as the 1600s. Fur muffs resurfaced in 1914 as an alternative to the woman’s handbag. One of the changes made to the muff in later years was to incorporate internal pockets for carrying money and other small necessities (Fogg, 2009, p. 3, 129; Laver, 2002, p. 244; Lester, 1956, p. 130-131, 136).
Men’s Fur Coats
Fur coats were a basic staple in the closet of most men in the early 1900s. For a number of years, the long beaver or raccoon overcoats were popular. Men also wore coats lined with shaved fur. These coats were either collarless or had a fur collar (Hanson, 1956, p. 99; Schneider, 2012). An article in Men’s Wear, published in 1935, stated that every man in Europe who could afford a fur coat probably had one, and that every respectable man would own at least three, a fur coat for city wear, a casual one for sporting events, and a black evening fur coat (Schneider, 2012).
FUR MARKETS AND FASHION FURS, 1940-1950
Fur sales plummeted during the years of the Economic Depression which began in some countries around 1929, and lasted up until the late 1930s to the early 1940s. With the downturn in the labor market, many people no longer had the disposable income to purchase furs. Although there are indications that the high-end retail fur business in the United States remained recession-proof as not all wealthy individuals had lost their money in the stock markets. These individuals continued to acquire luxury furs (Evans, Inc., 1998).
The fur markets continued their downward spiral in the early 1940s due to World War II. Many families were experiencing loss of income when the heads of households went overseas. Also, the fur industry suffered a shortage of equipment and materials which went to support the war effort. During the war years a new group of fur consumers emerged. Women, who were working in highly paid wartime industries, could now afford to buy themselves a fur coat instead of having to wait for a spouse or a lover to lavish them in fur (Tortora & Eubank, 2010, p. 473). In Canada, near the end of the 1940s, the fur manufacturing and retailing firms were almost entirely dependent on the women’s fur coat market (Sangster, 2011, p. 391, 401).
Images of Women as Fur Consumers
Writing from a feminist perspective, Sangster (2011) found that in the fur industry journals published in the 1940s and 1950s there were two types of images of females as fur consumers. One image presents them as the “suburban housewife,” a middle class consumer wearing a lower-priced fur coat that is practical, comfortable and respectable. A contrasting image of the female as fur consumer is that of the “sensual, sexy, sultry movie star model, wearing makeup, high heels, and jewellery, adorned in fox or mink” (p. 407). It goes without saying that the majority of fur retailers would have been more dependent on middle class women to maintain their business than on the rich and famous.
The fur coats advertised in 1947 by Labelle Fourrure (1947), a 100 year old company situated in Montreal, are representative of the sort of fur coats “suburban housewives” with a modest purse would have purchased at that time. The fur coats listed included, for example, a Persian lamb (Mouton de Perse gris) for $975, a Russian squirrel (Écureil Russe) for $475, a muskrat (Rat Musqué) for $369, and a wildcat coat (Chat Sauvage) for $295. The lesser priced furs included a mouton lamb coat treated to resemble beaver (Castor) for $189, and a rabbit coat dyed to look like muskrat for $139.
BIBLIOGRAPHY 1950 TO DATE
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