War in the West

Skin Deep: The Fall of Fur

In recent years British models have reappeared on the catwalk wearing real fur, though it is unlikely to ever regain the mass appeal it once had. Carol Dyhouse looks back to a time when female glamour was defined by a mink coat.

A model sporting a silver mink fur coat, c.1950. Getty Images / Hulton ArchiveFor many women in postwar Britain a fur coat – preferably mink – represented the height of luxury, the ultimate object of desire. In popular culture the ambition to own a fur coat became a defining quality of femininity, tantamount to a secondary sexual characteristic. Cartoons made play of this, as when Punch published ‘The First Mink’, a series of drawings by Alex Graham which showed women reluctant to take off their fur coats in summertime, at cocktail parties in warm rooms or even while doing the washing up. In one of these images a tiny girl with a big smile parades before a mirror in her mother’s fur, its hemline trailing on the floor. If a woman was lucky a rich husband or male protector would buy her a fur. If she came into money in her own right it surprised no one if the first thing she bought herself was a fur coat. Fur epitomised a dream of glamour, the height of fashion, a longing for comfort and success.

It had been worn throughout history but never by so many as in the affluent West in the first half of the last century. The fur trade had grown immeasurably since the Hudson’s Bay Company had been incorporated by Royal Charter in 1670. Demand for hats made from felted beaver had begun to decline by the mid-19th century but coats – fashioned from a variety of pelts, but particularly sealskin – remained popular among men and women. Those worn by Victorian gentlemen tended to have the fur facing inwards as a lining; whereas women’s coats fashionably sported bands of fur as a trim around the hemline, collars and cuffs. Prince Albert was supplied with ‘a coat of Tartar foal-skin’ by the internationally renowned furrier Nicholay and Son, with whom he worked closely in organising the Great Exhibition of 1851. Later in the century Nicholay merged with Debenham and Freebody, which became famous for its supply of furs to royalty, including coronation robes and even a mantle of black fox for Tsar Alexander II of Russia.

The late Victorians and Edwardians marvelled at what they saw as the ‘Romance of Furriery’. The Franco-British Exhibition at the White City in 1908 featured four ‘Dioramas’ organised by the celebrated French furrier Revillon Frères, showing a company steamer amid ice in Hudson Bay in Canada, a remote fur post, pelts in a Bokhara bazaar and elegant fur-clad women seated in a box at the opera. The landmark documentary film Nanook of the North, with its memorable account of an Eskimo (Inuit) family, sheathed in fur trousers against the Arctic winds, building igloos and harpooning walrus and seal, was funded by Revillon Frères in 1920-21. Meanwhile, the writer Elinor Glyn (1864-1943) was writhing, semi-clad, on tiger skins and writing sensational, best-selling fiction about miscreant heroines and ‘It’girls who exuded sex-appeal. She was soon to turn her talents to Hollywood scriptwriting for the nascent film industry, which popularised the wearing of fur in ever-more extravagant quantities.

Advertisement for 'Fashionable Furs at Swan & Edgar's of Regent Street, Piccadilly', 1910. Getty / Hulton
Advertisement for 'Fashionable Furs at Swan & Edgar's of Regent Street, Piccadilly', 1910. Getty / Hulton

The late Victorian period had witnessed an alarmingly gruesome vogue for the wearing of jackets, hats and muffs trimmed with whole birds, stuffed kittens’ heads and baby squirrels. Photographs from the 1900s show girls of even modest means flaunting wide stoles, edged with tails and tiny paws. Edith Carrington, a contemporary animal rights activist and editor of the journal Our Animal Brothers, campaigned tirelessly against the practice, with publications such as Pleadings for Dumb Plaintiffs, Grandmother Pussy and The Dog: His Rights and Wrongs. An illustrated booklet published in Bristol in 1911 entitled Fashionable Furs: How They Are Obtained featured harrowing stories such as ‘The Kindly Little Musquash’ and ‘A Dying Creature’s Reproach’. But, while campaigns against the destruction of tropical birds and egrets (whose feathers were used in millinery) met with some success, few were squeamish about the wearing of fur coats. Demand for fur rocketed and was likened by Agnes Laut, an American writer on the subject, to the tulip craze of the 17th century. Laut had short shrift for those who saw cruelty in the fur trade, contending that they usually enjoyed eating bacon and roast beef.

In England social unease about women’s growing independence through the First World War fed into attacks on munitions workers, who were often accused of hankering after fur coats while their menfolk suffered in the trenches. Women’s passion for cinema stimulated the desire for fur still further: it came to epitomise glamour and screen stars of the 1920s and 1930s boasted coats with towering fur collars or swathed themselves in wraps and full length coats of fox and sable. A fur coat represented a dream of a better life to many women. In Easy Living, a film of 1937, a marital disagreement between a rich financier and his wife prompts the husband to throw his wife’s expensive new sable coat out of the window. It lands on Mary Smith, a poor hardworking girl whose life is transformed into a fairy-tale romance in consequence. Sable, the most expensive fur, was beyond the reach of working-class women, who found cheaper substitutes in rabbit, nutria, skunk or squirrel. A writer in The British Fur Trade estimated that two out of three women on any street in any town in England in the 1920s would be found wearing fur, if not as a coat, then as a trim of some kind.

The 1930s saw London consolidate itself as a world centre of the fur trade. Leipzig lost out to London as waves of refugees fled from Europe and Jewish furriers, such as the Hungarian Calman Links, established themselves in Britain. Craftsmen and big brokers like Henry Kiver of Fenchurch Street flourished alongside an army of dressers and cleaners, who advertised their ability to work on pelts of just about anything once living, ‘from a mole to a buffalo’. Trade journals dedicated to furriery proliferated and are a useful source for the historian today, as are the records of institutions such as ‘Empire Fur Week’, organised by the London Fur Trade Association from 1934. Reports of the fur auctions of the period indicate the scale of the industry; at the Hudson’s Bay Company’s bi-annual sales in the 1930s, many hundreds of thousands of fox, ermine, beaver and mink pelts came under the hammer. The range of species skinned was equally mind-boggling, including badger, skunk, wolf, polecat, squirrel, musk ox, monkey, nutria, raccoon, wombat and wallaby. Even hamsters and house cats were skinned for their fur.

Demand for beaver pelts had driven that animal to the brink of extinction in Europe and Scandinavia in the 18th century. Concern for the depletion of wildlife and the costs of trapping and transport encouraged fur farming in the West. When the demand for fox furs peaked in the 1930s many turned to breeding the coveted varieties, particularly silver, blue, platinum and white (Arctic) fox. Some 150 silver fox fur breeders were listed in the British Fur Trade Yearbook for 1933. It was suggested that the occupation was particularly suited to women, although the actual killing of the animals would require the services of a hired man. Film footage from the period shows very little sentimentality in all this. In an example from Eve’s Film Review of 1931, for instance, the camera pans over baby foxes pawing helplessly against wire netting with a brisk voice-over announcing: ‘It’s tough luck to be a soft silky fox – even though you might finish as a caressing necklet around some ravishing young lady’s shoulders!’

Pelts are examined in the fur department of the Hudson's Bay Company Store, Manitoba, Canada, July 1937. Getty Images / Time Life

The demand for fox seemed insatiable in the 1930s, but its fall from fashion after the Second World War was dramatic. Instead mink became the fur most coveted by women. J.G. Links, son of the furrier Calman Links, mused on the fickleness of fashion in this respect. Gone were the days ‘when a hundred thousand silver foxes alone would be offered for sale and eagerly competed for in one London auction alone’, he wrote. Red fox was now deemed just about unsaleable and he found it incredible ‘that a Kamchatka red fox, with its deep golden-red colouring like a Turner sunset, and its caressing, sensuous fur, should today find no buyers at fewer shillings than I used to pay pounds for it’. By the 1950s Links estimated that sales of mink were worth three to four times as much in money terms as all other furs put together. Some six million mink were being ‘produced’ annually by this time.

The vogue for mink in postwar Britain was such that women who could not hope for a mink coat would console themselves with a stole, a fur tie, a mink brooch or even a pair of mink earrings. The fur’s cachet was such that one might buy cosmetics in the shade of ‘mutation mink’ (Gala), or even Steiner’s White Mink perfume. Diana Dors, Britain’s answer to Marilyn Monroe, caused a sensation when she appeared on the Venice Lido during the film festival in what was supposed to have been a mink bikini – although she later confessed that it had really been made from rabbit.

But would mink, in its turn, fall out of fashion? Links had pointed out that skunk fur, popular before fox, was now worthless. He recommended those who still had muffs or stoles in skunk to burn them before they suffered an infestation of moth or weevil. Fox was going the same way but Links thought it unlikely that mink would fall from favour:

My own guess is that when women stop wearing mink they will stop wearing fur altogether, and as this eventuality has not occurred for several thousand years, it will, I hope, be postponed for yet a little longer.

Few foresaw how thoroughly fashion was to fall out with fur in Britain in the late 20th century. How do we explain this? It has often been assumed that the animal rights movement was successful in changing public attitudes. The uncompromisingly militant Animal Liberation Front was formed in 1976, PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) in 1980 and Lynx, the animal welfare trust, in 1984. Lynx mounted a high-profile advertising and poster campaign in the 1980s, most memorably distributing an image by David Bailey which showed a model trailing a fur coat oozing blood on the catwalk with the slogan: ‘It takes up to 40 dumb animals to make this but only one to wear it.’ The organisation attracted the support of celebrities who vowed not to wear fur. Anti-fur protestors sprayed red paint on those wearing fur in public and attacked fur farms. By the 1990s many fur retailers and fur sections in department stores such as Debenhams and Harrods closed and fur farming became illegal in the UK in 2002.

So did the animal rights movement drive the fur coat wearing classes to extinction? Britain is not wholly representative here – fur farming continues in large sections of the world and many women in Europe and elsewhere continue to wear their fur coats with pride. The British experience was not clear cut. Fur was falling from favour well before the activism of the 1980s. In the late 1950s the price of mink fell dramatically. The cost of manufacturing a mink coat now exceeded that of the raw materials and there were many in the trade who felt that the luxury status of fur was becoming a thing of the past. Demand began to fall. The widespread adoption of central heating no doubt played some part: in bitter cold, nothing keeps you warm like natural fur. But the truth was that the fur coat, once the epitome of glamour and luxury, acquired unfashionable connotations from the 1960s. It signified an older, less trendy and more dependent kind of femininity. The urbane and discreet Links had insisted that most furs were bought by husbands for their wives and not for their mistresses. But in the popular mind the fur coat had come to signify hussies on the make or the kept woman.

This had little appeal for the young woman of the 1960s. When she rose to television fame as a popular singer in the 1950s, Alma Cogan had celebrated by buying two silver blue mink coats, one for herself and the other for her mother. She had offered to buy one for her younger sister, Sandra, too, but Sandra had demurred. She wanted to be seen as a serious actress ‘and a sort of beatnik’, she recorded, and she insisted on a duffel coat instead. Fur was a dying trend. Fur coats, once lovingly consigned to ‘cold storage’ facilities in department stores in summer, went to the back of the wardrobe instead. Many found their way to flea-markets or car-boot sales in the new millennium.

Carol Dyhouse is Research Professor in History, University of Sussex and the author of Glamour: Women, History, Feminism (Zed Books, 2010).

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