Fur is making a comeback in a big way. Fur companies have marked growth for the first time in decades and it is dominating the big fashion designers’ collections. I noticed a lot of fur garments during this year’s fashion month and I started to wonder why. I thought fur was a big taboo and many celebrities are even publicly against it, so how could so many designers show fur so brazenly? I’ve also heard a lot about the environmental impacts of faux furs so I started to do my research to get some context and bring some sense to the situation.
Fur’s use in clothing has developed from a source of warmth and protection to a symbol of status early on in history. Early society hunters even believed in “contagious magic” which theoretically gave them the power and spirit of the animals they killed and wore. The most luxurious animal pelts became status symbols in most societies. In Egypt from 3000 to 300BC leopard and lion pelts were strictly reserved for kings in ceremony. In the 14th century there was a “Little Ice Age” that caused a major dip in temperatures in Europe; demand for fur exploded. Sometimes up to 2,000 animals were used in one garment. Demand was so high for luxurious furs that the trading of furs for silks, among other items, greatly strengthened the Silk Road between Europe and Asia. With the colonization of New England and New France in the 17th and 18th centuries, fur was almost unlimited in supply. The rise of the mercantile class that benefited from the transatlantic shipping made them wealthy and they strove to emulate the aristocracy by wearing nice furs. Laws were passed to reserve the most luxurious furs like ermine, sable, and beaver for only the aristocracy while cheaper varieties like wolves and rabbits could be worn by lower classes. Fur as a symbol of status was not a purely European act; during the Edo period in Japan, the population was so wealthy that sumptuary laws had to be passed in order to regulate the fabrics, techniques and colors used by different classes in order to distinguish them.
Better production and material techniques turned fur into the manageable, lightweight, and customizable commodity it is today. Fake furs were invented in the 1940’s and 1950’s as a response to the exorbitant cost of real fur, not as a result of an ethics issue. Fake fur was originally made of alpaca (which are sheared, not killed) but really didn’t have the look or feel of traditional furs. By the 1950’s, acrylic polymers were used to replace alpaca because they could be created in such a way to imitate both the look and the weight of real fur. Now they are mixed with other polymers (called modacrylics) to further imitate fur while also being fire-resistant. These chemicals are derived from coal, air, water, petroleum, and limestone which fur companies cite when noting the environmental impact of fake furs. Fake furs are created with these nonrenewable resources and can take 500-1,000 years to biodegrade while real fur (because it is treated with a few chemicals for preservation) only takes 5-10 years to biodegrade. Real furs also require a lot of maintenance like climate controlled storage that can take a toll on the environment. Most studies I’ve seen on real and fake fur's environmental impacts are sponsored by monied interests in the outcome so it’s hard to say which is worse. It’s really a matter of opinion; do you care more deeply about how we use petroleum and the end-use waste of fake furs or the slaughter of animals that is required of real furs?
Garments made of fur only became disdainful in the 1960’s when activists tried to sensitize the public to the plight of the animals being farmed. During the process of fur farming, animals are caged and slaughtered (like livestock) and some have been hunted to near or total extinction due to the demand for fur. PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) launched its famous anti-fur campaign “I’d rather go naked than wear fur” where various celebrities pose nude for the cause. Many fur companies even declared bankruptcy during this time. That advertisement seems to have had a large impact on consumers as, even today, passers-by look on with disgust at someone wearing fur. I would absolutely love to purchase a fur coat from a vintage shop so that I don’t directly contribute to the demand, but on the street, who would know?
Fur is experiencing quite a revival though. On the British catwalks last year, more than 60% of shows featured fur and at New York fashion week the figure topped 70%. Karl Lagerfeld even noted that he would be doing couture furs for Fendi’s 50th anniversary as the design house is known for its “fun furs”. All sorts of celebrities have been spotted wearing it from Kanye West to Rihanna and Kate Moss. Lady Gaga previously denounced fur but has now come around on the issue and was reported saying, “You see a carcass, I see a museum pièce de résistance.” The use of fur continues to be a controversial subject in modern fashion. While strides have been made to combat its use, its historical importance cannot be denied in the world of fashion.
Let me know what you think about the use of fur in fashion by tweeting me at @amymboone!