HISTORY OF FURS AND FASHION INTRODUCTION
he recent controversy over West Hollywood Bans Fur Sales referred to in the Marquis of Fashion Blog: West Hollywood Bans Fur, begs us to better understand the history of the role of furs in the development of early societies, and in the evolution of Western European and American social and economic systems. In an attempt to present a few insights into the relationship between fashion furs, power and social structure, this article is organized into four parts:
- An overview of the history of furs and fashion
- The usage of animal pelts in dress in prehistory
- Furs and fashion trends in dress between the 10th and 19th Centuries
- Furs and fashion trends since the 20th Century
OVERVIEW OF THE HISTORY OF FURS AND FASHION
Animal pelts, or fur and leather, have been used by humankind as clothing since the earliest times to protect their bodies from climatic conditions and harm. Furs and leather have remained popular over the ages because of their warmth, durability, and their status symbol. In certain early societies animal pelts and their by-products took on mystical or spiritual powers when worn by hunters or the ruling classes. In European societies luxury furs became associated with social stratification. In the last two centuries, the growing middle classes in Western Europe and in North America have developed a love for fashion furs as a way of expressing their social status, or to give themselves an ultra-modern look. Since the 1980s questions have been raised about the ethics of using animal products as entire species may have been wiped out by fashion (Lee, 2003, p. 254). Despite the efforts of anti-fur activists and their sensitizing campaigns associated with animal cruelty, the popularity of wrapping oneself in a “sensual second skin” continues to persist. Could it be that some people still believe in a hidden form of “contagious magic” when attired in fur or leather?
The significance of animal pelts in early societies:
In early societies hunters believed in “contagious magic,” that is, in the transference of the strength, power, courage, skills, prowess, and fertility of a particular animal to a human being. For example, when a hunter tied a lion skin around his waist or flung it over his shoulder he believed that he would gain the strength of a lion (Harris & Johnston, 1971, p. 12). In Pagan traditions some people express a reverence for a particular animal. Those with an affinity for wolves or bears, for example, collect emblems of the animal such as their tooth or fur. Harvey (1997) states “that in ceremony, meditation and dreams they ‘become’ their chosen animal” and they will ask the animal “for support and guidance in spirit journeys and healing” (p. 171-172).
Relationship between furs and ruling classes:
Since early times, particular animal skins or furs have been reserved for the ruling and elite classes. For example, in Egypt during the period 3000-300 BC, leopard skin and lion skin was worn only by kings as well as high priests when they performed symbolic ceremonies (Hansen, 1956, p. 11; Tortora & Eubank, 2010, p. 37). Beginning in the 11th Century, in Western Europe, luxury furs such as ermine, mink, sable, and chinchilla, to name a few, were reserved for the royalty, nobility, high ranking clergy, and the bourgeoisie. Durant (1950) relates that some barons “were known to mortgage their lands to buy ermine for their wives” (p. 833).
By the 13th and 14th Centuries, the growing mercantile class who was becoming wealthy and powerful through trade and commerce began to adopt the manners and fashion of dress of the aristocracy. They liked to adorn themselves and their wives in luxury furs which had been restricted for royalty and the ruling classes (Heer, 1961, p. 92-93). To maintain social distinction in dress, in the 1200s the ruling classes began to pass Ordinances or Sumptuary Laws. In Germany, a law stated that sable and ermine were reserved for noble ladies. In France, a Royal Ordinance passed in 1294 stated that no man or woman of the middle classes might wear ermine or vair (the bluish gray and white fur of a squirrel prized for ornamental use in medieval times) (Boucher, n.d., p. 179-180). In the 1300s-1400s Sumptuary Laws regulated the types of fur different social classes could use in the trimming and lining of garments. A law also specified that lower class women were only allowed to wear the fur of foxes, otters, and small burrowing rodents (Tortora & Eubank, 2010, p. 157). But, as Boucher (n.d.) points out, Ordinances passed in 1350, 1367, and 1380 may not necessarily have been observed (p. 206). In the early 1600s, with the growing impoverishment of aristocracy who lived off the land in Western Europe, wealthy merchants and traders began to buy themselves knightly manors and administrative posts (Heer, 1961, p. 41-43; McNeill, 1967, p. 430- 532). In France, it was possible for furriers with enough capital to fill the coffers of royalty to become ennobled (Boucher, n.d., p. 280).
The growing demand for luxury and fashion furs by the nobility, the upper classes and the new mercantile classes over the centuries led to the opening of new trade routes and the establishment of fur trade monopolies. Beginning in the Twelfth Century, German traders had the monopoly of the highly coveted fur industry as they had access to the finest Russian furs, particularly ermine (the white winter coat of weasels). They became known as the masters of the fur trade (Durant, 1950. p. 833).
With the colonization of New France and New England between the 17th and 18th Centuries, Western European furriers, hatters, and leather manufacturers were assured an almost unlimited supply of pelts. However, luxury furs continued to be accessible only to the wealthy and powerful classes. Anyone unable to afford the expensive skins (ermine, sable, weasel, squirrel, bear, beaver, must, lynx, otter, polecat, marten, and fox) had to satisfy themselves with the cheaper varieties (hare, rabbit, lamb, and wolf) (Heer, 1961, p. 92-93). After 1870, the fur trade between North America and Europe was no longer a major industry. Fur farms began to fill the void. Lee (2003) writes that 85% of the fur used today comes from farmed animals (p. 277).
Technological advancements in the processing of animal pelts:
Since the 19th Century, new machines have been invented to transform animal pelts at much lesser costs than in the past centuries. There are now machines that stir hides and skins as they soak, remove the hair and flesh from the hides, split the hides, soften them and even emboss patterns on the leather (Stone, 2008, p. 174-175). As a result of new technologies, furs can now be made which are lighter and more manageable. There are now machines that can weave texture and pattern into furs in a variety of colorful, mod looks. Yelena Yarmak, a Russian mathematician turned fashion designer, invented a technology that can make fur look like silk. She also created mink jackets that look like leopard skin and chinchilla (Lee, 2003, p. 256). In 2000, Harper’s Bazaar featured a $95,000 Fendi mink coat, one of only fourteen made and dyed in such colors as red fuschia, lavender, blue, black, and umber. These coats looked more like velvet that had been printed with a pattern (Lee, 2003, p. 250).
Accessibility of fashion furs:
Fur and leather garments have become available to the masses in the last century, thanks to the advancement in technologies for processing pelts. However, luxury furs still confer a super wealthy cachet. Since the early 20th Century, the rising classes with disposable income have been demanding fur coats and garments dressed or trimmed with fur thus opening the market for less expensive furs such as muskrat, wolf, racoon, hare, lamb, and others.
Olian (2002) has compiled data on the fashion furs available for sale in the Sears Catalogs for the period 1951 to 1959. This data provides us with a glimpse into the kinds of furs available to the masses and their costs. We can see, for example, how technology has been responsible for the fabrication of less expensive furs that look like real mink and sable. In 1951, a mink dyed marmot cape with slits for arms had a sale price of $153.30, and sable dyed squirrel fur scarves, with tails and paws, 16” long, set of 3 skins, could be purchased for $17.30 (p. 10). The price for a natural mink garment was much higher. In 1958, it was possible to order a natural mink stole, with let-out pelts 20” deep, 33” long for $599.00 (p. 90). Fox was also a popular fur but prices depended on the type of pelt. In 1951, a red fox jacket, in three shades, was available for $71.40 compared to a genuine natural silver fox jacket which was listed for $167.00 (p. 20). Women lacking the financial means to buy a full length fur coat, fur jacket or stole could still obtain a fur trimmed garment at a reasonable price. In 1956, a dyed mouton-processed lamb collar on a ¾ length car coat was listed for $17.95.
Designers and fashion furs:
Early French fashion designers such as Jeanne Paquin (1869-1956) and Paul Poiret (1897-1944) started to use fur regularly in their collections in the early 1900s. By the 1930’s, fur was used in abundance by designers as trim for coats, collars and cuffs. According to Lee (2003), the biggest names in fashion have experimented with different types of fur. In 2000, for example, the following furs were used by designers: Miuccia Prada, tippet and racoon; Albert Ferretti, hamster (euwww); Narciso Rodriguez, fox, Galliano, chinchilla; Marc Jacob, mink, and Gaultier, sable (p. 252). Present day designers are still featuring luxury furs and leather in their collections, notably: Michael Kors, Fall Winter, 2012; Marc Jacobs, Fall 2011; Hugo Boss Women’s, Fall 2011; Jean Paul Gaultier, Spring/Summer, 2011; Vera Wang, Fall 2011, and others.
Fortunes have been made over the centuries from the exploitation of fur-bearing animals to satisfy human needs and vanities. The technological sophistication and application of artistic skills in the treatment of pelts have opened the doors to seductive new designs and styles. It would seem that the controversies surrounding the plight of animals in the 1980s-1990s may have created havoc on fur farms, but according to Lee (2003) the bulk of the consumers turned away their heads in indifference (p. 247). Since that period of time faux fur has become quite popular as an alternative to using animal skins for dress. However, as Lee (2003) explains, some people will argue that faux fur is a plastic product made from petroleum, which consumes natural resources, and it creates pollution in the manufacturing state (p. 277). Modern marketing strategies, rapid communication about new trends through the mass media, collective tastes, and the social environment suggest that fashion furs continue to have staying power.
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