You Should Be Reading: Fur in Fashion

In one of my favorite holiday films, the 1945 classic “Christmas in Connecticut,” viewers are first introduced to Elizabeth Lane (played by Barbara Stanwyck) as she receives an exciting delivery at her New York City apartment – her first fur coat. She tells her friend Felix that she needed the coat, despite it costing six months of her salary. “You need it?” he asks. “Nobody needs a mink coat but the mink.” In that era, it was a lighthearted line for laughs and not a condemnation. In the twenty-first century, there is more attention on the ethics of wearing fur and its potential environmental impact. Designer Pamela Paquin of Petite Mort has her own idea of ethical fur: roadkill pelts. Luxury consumers may not attribute the same level of glamour and status to a raccoon muff that Paquin refers to as “accidental fur,” but the price is still high, with pieces starting at $1,000 each. The more popular ethical alternative to fur, synthetics, are often constructed of materials that are harmful to the earth. Despite increased discussion of these issues, the International Fur Federation reports that sales are at an all-time high of $14 billion worldwide. For many designers and shoppers, fur still signifies elegance and extravagance. Three articles below discuss fur in the fashion industry. The earliest examines the conflicting representations of Victorian women adorned with animal skins in public spaces and in the paintings of John Collier; next, an overview of key ethical issues in fur production; and, conversely, a final look at the negative consequences a decline in the fur market would have on indigenous economies. What’s your stance on fur in fashion? Let us know in the comments.

1. Gauld, Nicola. (2005). Victorian bodies: The wild animal as adornmentBritish Art Journal, 6(1), 37-42.

Victorian artists’ representation of women adorned with animals is examined. In the late 19th century, the wearing of animals was an increasingly integral part of wealthy fashion and undoubtedly evident in the art of the period, but with very different meanings. In fashion, animal products signified wealth and status while symbolizing Victorian power over nature, which was also intimated in representations of men and animals in art. In John Collier’s paintings Maenads, Lilith, and A Priestess of Bacchus, which show provocative images of women covered by animal skins, the inclusion of the animal suggests the much more disturbing idea of female sexuality, however. These images clearly show the Victorian perception of the female as, in the words of Edward Carpenter, “more primitive . . . more intuitive and . . . more emotional” while suggesting the presence of “a separate species from men.” – Full Article Abstract

2. Sorenson, John. (2011). Ethical fashion and the exploitation of nonhuman animalsCritical Studies in Fashion and Beauty, 2(1-2), 139-164.

Fashion theorists have largely ignored ethical concerns about the industry’s exploitation of nonhuman animals. While critical theory and political economy approaches stress the centrality of animal exploitation to global capitalism, an animal rights perspective critiques the fashion industry’s use of nonhuman animals as a ‘theatre of cruelty’ which turns them from living beings to mere products, or raw materials. Adopting these perspectives, the article provides a brief survey of some key issues, and examines the resurgence of fur sales and fur industry rhetorics. The evidence and the arguments presented illustrate why a critical approach to ethical issues in fashion and beauty cannot exclude nonhuman animals. – Full Article Abstract

3. Strege, Gayle. (2014). Fur as fashion in AmericaFashion, Style and Popular Culture, 1(3), 413-432.

Animal skins and furs are some of the earliest clothing items worn by humankind and the practicality of their toughness and warmth is one of the reasons why they are still worn today. Beyond its practical use, fur acquired the added appeal of decoration and luxury throughout fashion history, and its wearers, criticism via accusations of ostentation. With the rise in the late nineteenth century of a middle class with economic means, greater demand for luxury fashions such as fur ensued. To meet market and fashion trend demands, overharvesting of fur species led to rapid declines in animal populations. This in turn resulted in industry regulations protecting endangered species and domestic farming of fur animals. Aggressive activities of animal rights organizations in the late twentieth century resulted in devastating consequences for indigenous economies dependant on fur hunting. These peoples in turn organized to counter misinformation and promote fur as the ultimate natural fibre contrasted to fake furs that are petroleum by-products with their own harmful environmental harvesting issues. – Full Article Abstract

Image credit: Still frame from Christmas in Connecticut via Movie Star Makeover.

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