Do You Like It? Share It:


[dropcap]F[/dropcap]ur as a fashion phenomenon flourished in Western Europe between the 10th and 19th centuries. Furred garments have been used to keep the body warm during cooler weather since early times, and they have also enabled individuals and groups to exhibit their rising social status. The bourgeoisie, the elites holding positions of power and authority, the rapidly increasing wealthy mercantilists and industrialists all strived to imitate the nobility in matters of fashion by dressing themselves and their wives in luxurious furs.

The enduring trend in the usage of fur for dress before the end of the 19th century was to line outer clothing with the pelts of animals, and to garnish parts of garments with fur. Indoor clothing would often be decorated with luxurious furs. Wool, velvet, silk, and damask were the most prevalent fabrics selected in the design of fur- lined, fur-trimmed and fur-edged garments.

The practice of lining clothing with the pelts of animals may have originated from parts of Asia. Boucher (n.d.) explains that in the 11th century, the Imperial costume worn in Eastern Europe was a long tunic lined with beaver fur and belted at the waist. He adds that in 1161 the Sultan Saladin presented Bohemond, Prince of Antioch (Antioch is an ancient city situated near present day Antakyn, Turkey), with ceremonial mantles (cape-like cloaks) lined with the pelts of animals. He further indicates that when the Crusaders arrived in Palestine in the 14th to 15th centuries, they noted that fur-lined pelisses (a type of short jacket), were being marketed in the Holly Land. These pelisses were lined with ermine (Babylon skins), gros vair and petit vair (the skin of the Northern squirrel, its back being greyish in color and its belly white), dark marten or zibeline, and with red and white fox from the Caspian (p. 150, 174).

In Europe during the Middle Ages (5th – 11th centuries), furs such as marten, ermine, and vair were reserved for lining and decorating princely garments and court dress. Vair continued to be in high demand by the nobility. Boucher (n.d.) relates that in a period of eighteen months Charles VI (1368-1422) of France used 20,000 bellies of vair for the lining of his garments, and the Queen Consort of France, Isabeau of Bavaria (1385-1422), utilized 15,000 such bellies for lining her clothing (p. 214-216). Heer (1961) points out that ermine, sable, marten, beaver, bear, and lynx were among the most sought after furs throughout the centuries (p. 92-93). The clothes-conscious who could not afford ermine opted for a less expensive fur known as lettice (a small weasel whose winter coat turns white). The middle classes with limited financial means had to content themselves with cloth and velvet garments decorated with fur (Lester, 1956, p. 184). The cheaper skins of lamb, sheep, goat, and wolf were generally set aside for the common people (Boucher, n.d. p. 214).

Furred garments, regarded as prized possessions by the professional classes, were occasionally bequeathed to their heirs. Cunnington and Lucas (1967) have researched some of these bequests. They found, for example, that in 1549 a surgeon to Edward VI bequeathed “…my newe coloured gown guarded (bordered) with velvet and faced with foynes (the fur of the polecat)” and “…my foxe furred gown” (p. 303-304). In 1561, a master barber-surgeon bequeathed his best gown “garbed (bordered) with velvet, furred and faced with sables” (p. 294-295).

In the section which follows we identify some of the most popular furred outerwear designs before the 19th century. We also make reference to the types of fur accessories in vogue over the centuries.

Prior to the end of the 19th century, there have been various designs of fur-lined and fur- trimmed outerwear in vogue, some with sleeves and others sleeveless. The most popular styles of sleeved outer- garments were known as cloaks, hoopelandes (robes and gowns), spencer jackets, and pelisses, to name a few. Outer-garments without sleeves were referred to as mantles, surcoats, and capes, to name a few. Parts of outer-clothing that could be trimmed or edged with fur included collars, necklines and armholes, borders of front openings, hemlines, the lower end of long or short flowing sleeves, and the cuffs of tight fitting sleeves. Large sleeves lent themselves to a deep turn back of fur (Boucher, n.d., 304, 309; Laver, 2002, p. 79; Lester, 1956, p. 97; Sichel, 1977, p. 26, 28).

Sleeved Outerwear (Cloaks, Houppellandes, Spencer, Pelisses)
Cloaks. Cloaks were worn as a type of overcoat since early times. A cloak was basically a long, loose fitting, and flowing garment. Some cloaks were circular in shape, others semi-circular. Cloaks featured full length cape-like sleeves, and collars or hoods. When lined or trimmed with ermine, they were considered to be luxurious garments.

From the 13th century onwards, long cloaks were sometimes referred to as the herigaut, the Witzchoura, and the garnache, to name a few. The herigaut had a slit below the shoulder in front through which the arm could be slipped, leaving the long full sleeves hanging behind. In 1808, a garment known as the Witzchoura, of Polish or Russian origin, became trendy. This cloak was wider in shape than the ordinary cloak, but like the herigaut, it was worn with the sleeves hanging down behind (Boucher, n.d., p. 346; Hammel, 1996). A cloak that was open at the sides under the arms was referred to as a garnache (Tortora & Eubank, 2010, p. 134, 136-137).

In Costume Cavalcade, Hanson (1956) presents a 1325 drawing of a Troubadour and his lady dressed in fur-lined cloaks. There is also an illustration of Burgundian men in the 1500s wearing large ermine lined cloaks with knee-length tunics of patterned velvet (p. 123). In 1863, the World of Fashion reported that at that time the most stylish black velvet cloaks or paletots (an overcoat or greatcoat) were those lined or trimmed with sable, marten, and vison (mink), and that ermine and chinchilla were more suited for lining or garnishing blue, violet, and claret velvet cloaks (Thomas, 2001-2012). Cloaks eventually lost their importance, but some women retained the style as a rich, fur-lined garment against the cold (Hansen, 1956, p. 122).

Houppelandes, robes and gowns. The houppelande was a long, full bodied robe or gown with wide flaring cape-like sleeves, and a funnel shaped collar. The huge shaped sleeves and funnel collar were sometimes edged and lined with fur in contrasting colors (Hansen, 1956, p. 40-41; Sichel, 1977, 9, 18).

Houppelandes formed part of the apparel worn by both sexes in the 14th and 15th centuries. In the 13th century, a similar costume worn by the academics and religious orders was referred to as the robe longue (Boucher, n.d. p. 433). Over the centuries, the professional classes dressed themselves in a type of garment which they referred to as a gown or robe. The academic and legal robes now worn in Western civilizations have their origins in the early styles of the houppelande.

Spencer. The spencer jacket, an invention of Lord Spencer became fashionable in London in 1804, and was then popularized in Europe. The spencer was a waist length close fitting jacket with an opening in the front, and close fitting sleeves. It was modeled on a gentleman’s riding coat, but without tails. Certain styles of these jackets had a standing collar which might be high enough to fold over in cool weather. To add additional warmth to the spencer, the smart set would throw a fur tippet or pèlerine (types of fur wraps) over their shoulders (Lester, 1956, p. 188).

The spencer designed for women was more body hugging than those worn by men. A woman’s spencer could be worn open or buttoned over the bosom. When the empire style dress came into fashion, the waistline of the spencer was matched to the high waists of the gowns. High society women liked to wear a silk spencer adorned with fur when out walking, or as carriage dress (Lester, 1956, p. 188). The spencer went out of fashion at the end of the Regency period, around the 1830s (Hammel, 1996).

Pelisses. The pelisse had its debut in the Middle Ages, around the period 1340 to 1425. Originally, it was a short, close fitting, collared jacket with sleeves and cuffs (Boucher, n.d., p. 196, 432). In the 18th to 19th centuries, pelisses went from half- length coats to three quarter length coats (Hammel, 1996). Pelisses replaced fur-lined cloaks. They were also a better choice than the spencer for outerwear in cooler weather as they fit relatively close to the figure, and the front of the garment could be closed with frogging, a military style of fastening consisting of a button and a loop. The buttons could be clasped at regular distances from the throat to the bottom (Hammel, 1996).

For a number of years, the fad was for men to wear the pelisse hanging loose over the left shoulder, imitating the Hussar Hungarian Cavalry of the 17th century. Military officers originally wore pelisses, and by the 19th century pelisses became part of the military costume of European armies.

Faddish women’s pelisses in the 1700s were influenced by the Eastern and Oriental gown. The Levantine, a type of pelisse, was edged with ermine and had an opening displaying an under gown and petticoat (Boucher, n. d. p. 303). Starting in the 1800s, pelisses were styled along the same high-waister lines as the empire style dresses of the day. Evening wear pelisses were mainly ermine lined velvet robes worn ankle length (Hammel, 1996).

Sleeveless Outerwear (Mantles, Surcoats, Capes)
Mantles. Mantles were one of the most simple and widespread of outer garments. They were a sort of a long, loose, and sleeveless cape-like cloak worn mainly in the 12th to 16th centuries. There appears to have been two major styles of mantles: open mantles and closed mantles. An open mantle was made from one piece of fabric that fastened on one shoulder. The closed mantle, a type of poncho, was a length of fabric with a slit through which the head could be slipped (Tortora & Eubank, 2010, p. 127). Some mantles had hoods whose shape was either round or pointed (Boucher, n.d. p. 431). In the 1300s, a shorter version of the mantle, known as the mantelet or “mantelot” came in style. By the 1700s, the full mantle or cape gained popularity (Lester, 1956, p. 147).

Wearing a mantle designated ones high rank in society. In the 13th and 14th centuries, the extravagances of the day were mantles of silk, edged or lined with ermine (Lester 1956, p. 95). In the 15th century, clothes-conscious men in Italy and Spain wore a short mantle over fitted garments, some of these being fur-lined (Boucher, n.d., p. 204). Women wore both open and closed mantles. Winter mantles were generally fur-lined and chic women added an ermine neck-piece over their shoulder (Tortora & Eubank, 2010, p. 127-128).

Surcoats. A surcoat was a long, wide, flowing type of sleeveless and collarless coat worn by men and women between the 12th and 15th centuries. In the 12th century, knights wore calf-length surcoats over their armour, the style of which they likely copied from the Turks they encountered during the Crusades. These surcoats had slits in the bottom front and at the back of the garment. From the 13th to 14th centuries, the surcoat became an outerwear garment worn by most Europeans at home and on journeys. When lined or trimmed with fur, surcoats became a posh garment.

The surcoat worn by upper class women was very long and it trailed on the ground. The front of the coat, which was formed like a sort of waistcoat, was most often covered with ermine as were the edges of the arm-holes. The surcoat remained in vogue up until the 15th century (Boucher, n.d., p. 184, 194; Hansen, 1956, p. 35, 36, 121; Lester, 1956, p. 96).

Capes. A cape or cloak is a sleeveless outerwear garment which likely had its beginnings in the Medieval period. A cape covers only the back and half of the front of a figure, it can vary in length, and it usually ties around the neck. Some capes had collars, and others hoods. In Medieval Scotland, badger, fox, seal and otter were used extensively for capes and jackets (Lee, 2003, p. 250). In the 15th and 16th centuries men’s capes were often trimmed with fur or were fur-lined in contrasting colors (Boucher, n.d., p. 214; Tortora & Eubank, 2010, p. 189, 253).

Horsemen in the 14th and 15th centuries wore long slit-lined coats with fur capes (Hansen, 1956, p. 41). Capes also formed part of a clergyman’s costume. Soignée women donned fur-lined and fur-trimmed capes over their evening dress to make a fashion statement, and also to protect the fine fabrics of their gown.

There have been various styles of fur wraps in vogue before the end of the 19th century such as pèlerines, tippets, fur ties, and zibellinos, to name a few. Different types of furred accessories such as hats, muffs, headscarfs and cravats became faddish at some point in time.

Pèlerines, capes. Pèlerines were basically a type of short fur cape or a broad collared-like cape which covered the shoulders. They became popular in the 1700s. In the 1800s, short fur capes were worn over the spencer jacket to add additional warmth (Boucher, n.d., p. 432; Hammel, 1996).

Tippits, fur scarves. Tippets were basically a long narrow fur scarf that was worn around the neck and had long ends that hung in front. Tippets likely appeared in the 14th century and they remained popular until the 19th century at which time the term appears to have waned. In the 1890s, a woman might be described as wearing a fur stole or long fur scarf over her gown, however, in the year 2000 the term resurfaced in reference to the Prada fur collar (Boucher, n.d., p. 344, 349, 395; Lee, 2003, p. 248; Tortora & Eubank, 2010, p. 284; Wikipedia, Tippets).

Fur ties. The fur tie appeared in 1676 when Elizabeth, Princess Palatine (1618-1689) of Bohemia, began to wear an old sable around her throat to keep it warm. Her innovative style was quickly copied by others (Boucher, n.d., p. 260).

Zibellinos. The zibellino was a sort of scarf-like wrap made out of the pelt of an animal. It gained popularity in the 15th and 16th centuries. In the 1500s, the term used in Italy was zebellinis, meaning the pelt of sables. Speakers of other languages called them martens or ermines. This type of wrap was worn draped at the neck or hanging at the waist. Some fitted gems in the face of the animal and in its paws. For instance, Elizabeth I of England received a “Sable Skynne the hed and fourre featte of gold fully furnyshed with Dyamondes and Rubyes” as a New Year’s Gift from the Earl of Leicester in 1585 (Wikipedia, Zibellinos).

The names of a few of the noble ladies who owned zibellinos in the 1500s are referenced in Wikipedia (Zibellino). Eleonora de Toledo, for instance, is reputed as having had at least four weasel zibellinos as they represented a modern talisman for her fertility. Her daughter, Isabella de’ Medici appeared in a zibellino in a portrait painted at the time of her marriage to Paolo Giordano Orsini in 1558. Mary, Queen of Scots is rumoured to have acquired a zilbellino, along with other furs, to bring back to Scotland when she visited France in 1561. Zibellinos went out of style in the 1700s, although the wearing of a full animal pelt (fur neckpiece) did make its reappearance in the early 1900s (Tortora & Eubank, 2010, p. 434, 436, 479).

Furred hats. Beaver hats were introduced around the 11th century and remained popular up until the 19th century. In the 16th century furriers began to make the popular felt hat out of carded beaver hair. These hats were worn by both men and boys. In the 16th century, fur and leather caps made their appearance (Boucher, n.d., p. 198, 276. 312; Hansen, 1956, p. 74; Sichel, 1977, p. 61, 480).

Fur muffs. Fur muffs are a type of hand held wrap with inserts on both sides to slip the hands in and keep them warm in winter. Fur muffs likely made their debut in the 14th century, and by the 17th century well-dressed men, women and children carried a muff. The sable muff was a favorite of classy high society ladies (Lester, 1956, p. 130-131, 136; Sichel, 1956, p. 15; Tortora & Eubank, 2010, p. 256). Count Brühl, of Dresden, Germany (1700-1763), who once boasted of possessing forty-seven furs, also owned 12 fur muffs (Boucher, n.d., p. 326). Middle class women who could not buy luxury furs used cat skin or dog skin muffs (Lester, 1956, p. 130-131).

Fur mufflers and cravats. Fur mufflers, a type of headscarf worn around the lower part of the face and fastened at the back were in style in the mid-1500s. The wealthy wore mufflers made of velvet and sable. Fur cravats, the forerunner of today’s neckties, became quite fashionable in the English court in the 1600s (Boucher, n.d., p. 273; Sichel, p. 64, 177).

The insatiable demand by the nobles and the rising classes for the pelts of animals for dress increased over the centuries. To meet their needs, new fur trade routes were opened in the New World. Various industries were established to process the pelts and make them accessible to furriers and couturiers who would eventually transform them into elegant and luxurious furred costumes. In 1838, Révillon Frères (a French fur enterprise founded in 1723) began to provide cheaper ready-made furs to a wider public. They subsequently opened fur boutiques in London, New York, and Montreal in the 1860s.

For many centuries the trend was to line outerwear with fur, but by the end of the 19th century, a new fashion trend evolved in the design of furred clothing. When the Russian Tsar visited Paris in 1896 he was wearing a whole ermine coat. Following his visit, there was a demand by the fashion-conscious men and women for clothing with the hair of the animal worn on the outside rather than on the inside of a garment. In 1900, the house of Révillon presented its line of fur garments at the Exposition Universelle in Paris. The collection included long and short fur coats, and garments garnished with fur (Boucher, n.d., p. 386; Wikipedia, 2011). Since then, fur coats and jackets have retained their popularity.

A study of fashion furs over the centuries leads us to conclude that furred styles, once a commodity reserved for the nobles and elites, enticed the growing social classes with disposable income to follow their direction. Furred-garments became a symbol of one’s prosperity and status. Animal pelts, a natural resource, were considered an economic good or commodity which yielded satisfaction to one’s ego and self-image. What all these elegant, chic, and stylish people who adorned themselves with furs seemed to lack before the 19th century was a social consciousness with regard to the plight of animals.


  • Boucher, François (n.d.). 20,000 years of fashion. The history of costume and personal adornment. New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc.
  • Cunnington, Phillis & Lucas, Catherine (1967). Occupational Costume in England. From the 11th Century to 1914. London: Adam & Charles Black.
  • Hammel, Kathy (1996). Cloaks, capes, pelisses and spencers : Outerwear for Regency ladies.
  • Hansen, Henny Harald (1956). Costume cavalcade. 685 examples of historic costume in colour. London: Methuen & Co. Ltd.
  • Heer, Freidrich (1961). The Medieval world. Europe 1100-1350. Translated from German by Janet Sondheimer. New York: The American Library.
  • Laver, James (2001). Costume and fashion. A concise history. 4th Edition. New York: Thomas & Hudson, Inc.
  • Lee, Michelle (2003). Fashion victims. Our love-hate relationship with dressing, shopping, and the cost of style. New York: Broadway Books.
  • Lester, Katherine Morris (1956). Historic couture. A resumé of the characteristic types of costume from the most remote times to the present day. Peoria, Illinois: Chas. A. Bennet Co., Inc. Publishers.
  • Sichel, Marion (1977). Tudors and Elizabethans. London: B.T. Batsford.
  • Thomas, Pauline Weston (2001-2012). Regency Fashion. Fashion Era. 1800s Costume History.
  • Tortora, Phyllis G. & Eubank, Keith (2010). Survey of historic costumes. A history of Western dress. Fifth Edition. New York: Fairchild Books.
  • Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia. Tippets.
  • Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia. Zibellino.
  • Wikipedia (2011). The Free Encyclopedia. Révillon frères.