It’s undeniable: Fur is back. At New York Fashion Week last month, this extravagant, expensive material was so abundant, it might have been everyday wool. Not just seen on coats, jackets, and stoles, designers fashioned furs into skirts, oversize mittens, dresses, blouses, and even hoodies. Most of the top designers, including Ralph Lauren, Calvin Klein, and Marc Jacobs, showed real fur in some form on the runway.
“People as a whole are never going to stop liking fur.”
In fact, it’s not unlike the 1930s, when Americans weathered the Great Depression, followed by the wartime-rationing of the 1940s. “The movies were about luxury, luxury, luxury,” says Samantha Davis of the New York City-based web retailer Sammy Davis Vintage.
“People would go into the cinema, and live in that scene. They’d get to feel like they were one of those wealthy people for a few hours, then go back home to their normal lives. The same can be said for fashion. You can see it as a voyeuristic experience.”
But this trend is causing dismay among animal-rights activists, who’ve spent the past three decades campaigning against the use of fur in fashion.
“Fur is one of the most egregiously cruel industries out there,” says Christy Griffin, special projects officer for In Defense of Animals, based in San Rafael, California. “Every year, over 50 million animals, including dogs and cats, are killed for their fur worldwide. Eighty-five percent of animals killed in the fur industry come from fur farms—dismal places where foxes, rabbits, minks, chinchilla, and other animals spend their entire short lives in these tiny, filthy metal cages. Then, they’re killed in really horrific ways, such as bludgeoning, neck-breaking, or electrocution.”
For fashionistas who both love animals and wearing fur, going vintage seems like a simple solution. Old furs don’t directly contribute to the profits of modern fur farms, and they’re less toxic to the environment than faux furs (shown by Anna Sui and Christian Siriano on the runway), which are made from petroleum. Fur coats and stoles from the ’50s and ’60s evoke the lux, decadent glamour of Marilyn Monroe and Elizabeth Taylor, but vintage furs go for a fraction of the cost of their contemporary counterparts.
“Some coats I have are from the ’20s, so the animal has been gone for a very long time.”
But according to Griffin, vintage fur is actually to blame for the renewed appetite for fur fashions. In the 1980s, groups like IDA, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, and the Animal Liberation Front started drawing attention to the brutal reality of fur farming. By the late 1990s, their sometimes-controversial campaigns, featuring celebrities like Pamela Anderson and Alicia Silverstone, succeeded in creating public distaste for furs, so that they no longer appeared on fashion runways.
Then, in 1998, HBO introduced its iconic single-girl show, “Sex and the City,” spotlighting a fashion-obsessed sex columnist, Carrie Bradshaw, strolling around New York City in a vintage fur coat. Griffin says that Vogue editor-in-chief Anna Wintour credits Carrie Bradshaw with bringing fur, old and new, back into fashion.
But vintage dealers like Davis and Elizabeth Hine, of Hinesite Vintage in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, say certain women never stopped loving their furs—and nothing is going to change that.
“If you go to any city, like New York, or other places where it’s cold—people wear fur,” Hine says. “I would rather see somebody with a vintage coat on because it’s already made. Some of the coats I have are from the ’20s, so the animal has been gone for a very long time. At least they’re preserved in a coat.”
Davis, who just published on an e-book called The 100 Best Vintage Shops Online, says that vintage clothing in general is greener than the modern fashion industry, and that she would prefer if furriers repurposed old furs rather than kill living animals. One new fur coat, for example, uses as many as 55 minks, 100 chinchillas, or 125 ermines, according to IDA.
“Do we need to produce billions of new garments a year? No,” she says. “Wearing second-hand fur is so much less detrimental to the environment than buying a new wool jacket is. I would much rather wear my grandmother’s fur coat that’s lasted since the ’50s than go buy something from J. Crew that I’m going to wear for two years and dispose of.”
In fact, Davis has had Facebook fans “Unlike” her page over pictures of her wearing vintage fur. She says she respects that people have strong opinions about fur, but she wishes they would suggest alternative uses for vintage fur, instead of simply getting angry.
“When it comes to wearing it, I understand that it perpetuates the trend as a whole, so it’s a risk when you walk around in it, because people can’t tell whether you’re in vintage or not,” she says. “But we’re always going to come across fur, whether it’s in our grandmother’s closet or at Goodwill.”
Rachel Poliquin, the author of The Breathless Zoo: Taxidermy and the Cultures of Longing, says she’s always wondered why the fur fashion has always garnered so much more hatred than other uses of animals like eating meat or making leather clothes, bags, belts, or shoes.
“I can’t help but think about the fact that it’s a luxury item,” she says. “Why are furs considered to be so much more offensive and horrible than eating a steak? In my mind, it’s the same thing. An animal died in both cases. But one, I guess, has got a little more glamour to it. It’s got the Marilyn Monroe aspect.
“As soon as you get into talking about animals, and the appropriate ways we use animals, it’s just such a never-ending pit of questions,” Poliquin continues. “Unless you live your life without using any animal products, and you don’t wear leather shoes or a leather belt, and you don’t eat meat, you’re always a hypocrite, and there is no gray. I think a lot of people like to live in the gray zone.”
Griffin’s organization, of course, encourages people to give up meat-eating and leather-wearing altogether. She says IDA is concerned about the well-being of cows—which provide both beef and cowhide—horses, and sheep, as well as the less cuddly cold-blooded animals like snakes, alligators, and crocodiles used for purses, belts, and shoes.
“Not all leather comes from the meat industry, which is a common misconception,” Griffin says. “A lot of leather is brought into the United States from other countries such as India where they don’t even eat cows.”
That’s exactly the point of buying vintage fur and leather, vintage dealers say. You aren’t buying any new cheap animal products from Asia, which is so far removed from the United States, you’ll never know how the animals are used or treated. And vintage fur can give you that Old Hollywood luxury, while saving you thousands of dollars.
“Buying fur is like buying a car,” says Anessa Woods, who runs the Columbus, Ohio-based online vintage retail shop Bustown Modern. “There’s absolutely no reason to buy a new car or a new fur because the minute you drive it off the showroom floor or wear it out of the store, you lose 50 percent of the value. If you spend $100,000 on a brand new sable coat, you’re going to be lucky if you can sell it for $15,000 two years later.
“That’s why I love selling used fur, because people can get something fantastic and get a good deal on it,” she continues. “People say, ‘Oh, gosh your stuff goes for such high prices!’ This Christian Dior full-length fox fur coat was probably $25,000 when it was brand new, and if you’re getting it for $3,500, you’re getting a steal.”
A more practical reason furs were coveted in the 1950s and ’60s, Davis says, is that cars didn’t have heat. So people would wear the warmest coat possible while driving, known as “car coats.” Griffin says that today we have innovative materials like down-filled jackets that are better at keeping you warm, but Woods disagrees.
“I can’t lie; there’s nothing warmer than fur,” she says. “I have coats that are down filled, and I don’t necessarily feel as warm and protected as I do in a fur.”
Back in the caveman days, clearly warmth was the biggest motivating factor for wearing furs. But in the Middle Ages, certain furs became symbolic of monarchies. Picture a red, fur-trimmed royal robe or crown from a storybook: Do you see white fur with black spots? That’s fur from ermine, also known as stoat, and, in countries such as England, sumptuary law decreed only royalty could wear it. In Russia, the same held true for sable, the fur of tsars.
Being a fur fit for a king wasn’t what brought the Eurasian beaver to the brink of extinction, though, it was haberdashery. According to Poliquin, who is working on a book on the history of the beaver industry, in the mid-1600s, Europeans discovered that beaver fur felted into the best wool for hats. In the 1700s, everything from top hats to Napoleon’s bicorne to the Pilgrim’s cockel hats were made of beaver felt. The shortage of beavers on the continent soon meant the North American beaver trade with Native Americans in Canada became extremely important.
“When they felted the wool underneath the longer guard hairs, it was waterproof,” Poliquin says. “When you wanted a broad brim, beaver felt held its shape very well in the rain, compared with some other materials, which would wobble all around. Everyone fell in love with it. Then in the 19th century, silk came to replace beaver, and then the beaver trade fell apart. And I’m sure the beaver was very thankful.”
The difference in how people view fur may also have something to do with how much nature is a part of their day-to-day lives, Poliquin explains.
“My dad grew up in Saskatchewan, which is very cold in the 1940s, and when he was young, people had buffalo furs,” she says. “It wasn’t a luxury item. My dad’s family lived way out in the country, they often trapped animals, and they used their furs in a very close relationship with the landscape. I can see that an increasingly urban population would prefer not be reminded: This is not just a beautiful piece of fabric; somebody died to give it to me.”
Many fur stoles and coats from the 1920s and ’30s feature the animal’s heads, feet, or tails—and this trend, which we might find shocking today, didn’t fully fade until the mid-1950s.
“More and more people don’t want to be associated with the cruelty that’s inherent in the industry, and the fact that they are dead animals,” Griffin says. “In the ’20s, it was a little more socially acceptable to be parading around with the full bodies of animals. These days, people want to be less associated with the cruelty, which is why you see the shaved furs and the multi-colored furs now.”
“As strange as it is today, it was indicative of glamour,” Davis says. “You would throw that double fox-head shawl over your 1930s slip dress, walk onto the red carpet, and call yourself Rita Hayworth.”
But without those obvious, identifying features, it becomes easier to mislead buyers about what animal the fur came from. For example, “poor man’s mink” has long been a code word for muskrat or opossum furs, which have much wider pelts than actual mink, Hine says. Coats labeled as chinchilla are often made from chinchilla rex rabbits, bunnies bred to have fluffy, feathery fur like chinchilla, Woods explains. These days nutria, which are similar to guinea pigs, are bred to have fur as soft as mink.
“Generally, I can just touch it without seeing it and know what kind of fur it is,” Woods says. “But there are a lot of people who have trouble distinguishing between a stone marten, a sable, a mink, or a fisher fur. It confuses me sometimes, too.”
While mink and sable are among the most expensive and desirable furs, rabbit fur has always been on the low end. Clearly, there’s a reason people joke about “breeding like rabbits.” Thanks to the abundance of rabbit, Wood explains, it would often be used as a starter fur for girls and teenagers in the mid-century. Other young girls would be gifted faux furs before they got their first real fur.
For adults, some of the most coveted furs came from “exotic” animals like leopard, which was used by surreal fashion designer Elsa Schiaparelli starting with her 1939 collection. In 1961, Oleg Cassini designed an elegant leopard fur-coat for First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy, and suddenly, every woman just had to have a leopard coat—pushing the big cat toward extinction, as more than 250,000 were killed for furs.
Cassini quickly became an adamant animal-rights activist. “After that I decided to never use (real) furs in my designs again,” he’s quoted as saying. “There’s no logic in real fur; it was a different time, when people didn’t have choices. Now it’s just a luxury item.”
These days, vintage dealers have to be especially careful to mind the Endangered Species Act of 1973, which bans the trade of any product from one of the 2,000 animals on the endangered species list. Anyone in the United States who sells leopard, ocelot, margay, tiger, cheetah, bear, or otter may face fines up to $100,000 and possibly jail time. Most big cats—even bobcat and Canadian lynx in certain states—are considered endangered.
The tricky piece is recognizing furs made from weasel-like spotted civets, which are not endangered and were used to make furs imitating leopard or jaguar, Woods says. These days, you have to be especially careful you can verify what you have is civet. Spotted furs from Asia, for example, could also be made from house cats.
Even if you know you’ve found a legitimate, legal vintage piece, the condition of an old fur will never compare to that of a new fur. Woods says that fur farms have practiced animal husbandry for so long now that they sell the plushest, silkiest furs imaginable today.
“A fox from the 1920s oftentimes is very coarse, and it can be a bit dried out, because it’s nearly a hundred years old, especially if it’s not well cared for,” Woods says. “Fur now is a lot sleeker, longer, thicker, and plusher. I’ve never picked up a fur from the 1920s and been like, ‘Wow, this is the most perfect, gorgeous, sleekest, silkiest, shiniest fur I’ve ever felt.’ But that doesn’t mean that it isn’t a good example of a high-quality fur from that time.
“Fur isn’t just for dressing up anymore. I wear it to the grocery store.”
“Even looking at a mink fur from the 1950s to now is completely different,” she continues. “Now, when you drop a mink fur on the floor, it just literally puddles almost like water, like silk. Older minks, even if they’re soft, supple, lovely, and still in luxurious condition, having been kept in cold storage, the fur is a little bit coarser.”
Like anything organic, old furs can shed and rot, which is why, according to Griffin, the production of new fur is as toxic to the environment as faux fur: New fur is loaded with chemicals that prevent decay. “Shedding is a sign of dry rotting so you really want to be careful of that,” Woods says. “After time, most furs will shed a little bit, but once you brush it once or twice that should pretty much stop.”
Hine agrees that you’ll never find furs from certain eras in perfect condition anymore, but that doesn’t mean a rare fur isn’t worth it.
“To be considered in good condition, it has to be supple,” she says. “It shouldn’t feel stiff at all. Most furs have what are known as guard hairs on them, and then there’s another layer of fur. If you pull on the guard hairs and you get a handful of them you know it’s got some age to it, and you’re going to be losing fur. Then it just depends on how much you like that fur.”
Vintage furs in the best condition have been kept in cold storage, Hine says. Like paper or fabric, furs are susceptible to moisture, but also suffer when kept in plastic bags.
“Furs have to be stored properly, or they lose their integrity,” Hine says. “If you buy fur that’s been stored in plastic, it feels different. The plastic makes fur deteriorate, it gets a little stiff, and the guard hairs will come out. It depends on how long it’s been stored in plastic and also, where in the house it was stored, whether in the closet or in the basement. If you want, put it in a pillowcase, something that can breathe. It’s not always best to store it on a hanger, even.”
And, if you’re going to wear a vintage fur, she says, don’t ever carry a shoulder bag or backpack.
“Why are furs considered to be so much more offensive and horrible than eating a steak?”
“When you buy something vintage, you can’t treat it like something brand new,” Hine says. “If you have to wear a shoulder bag, it’s best to wear it cross body, but it’s best not to carry shoulder bags at all with vintage fur. That’s where most of the stress on the fur would be just from hanging for years, on the shoulders and the back of the neck. If it’s going to dry out, that’s where it will.”
Generally, the most desirable vintage furs come the late 1940s up until the 1980s. Great Lakes Mink Association (GLMA), formed in 1941, trademarks its dark minks as Blackglama, while the Mutation Mink Breeders Association (EMBA), founded in 1942, branded its minks as The American Mink and trademarked its fur colors such as Desert Gold (light brown), Argenta (grey), Cerulean (blue), Azurene (pale grey), Jasmine (white), Tourmaline (pale beige), and Diadem (pale brown).
Since the late 1960s, Blackglama has employed big-name celebrities for its ongoing “What Becomes a Legend Most?” ad campaign, including Bette Davis, Judy Garland, Lena Horne, Brigitte Bardot, Rita Hayworth, Liza Minnelli, Ray Charles, Rudolf Nureyev, Cher, and Audrey Hepburn. In 1986, GLMA and EMBA merged to form American Legend Cooperative, still using the Blackglama trademark and advertising.
Throughout the decades, top New York and Parisian fashion houses, including James Galanos, Pierre Cardin, Nina Ricci, and Christian Dior, have all hired top furriers to produce their designs from mink, fox, and other animals. The French fur company Révillon Frères, supplied the furs for Saks Fifth Avenue between 1970 and 1995. As a result, vintage fur now can be found in every style imaginable.
“As long as you get a good fit, you’re pretty much good to go,” Woods says. “A lot of people will say, ‘I want this to be short and tight.’ But fur is so delicate, you want it to be looser, and you don’t want to be constricted in your movement because you’ll tear it. It’s delicate. It’s this really thin, little skin.”
These days, fur is worn with anything, for pretty much any activity. For a casual look, Woods recommends a hip-length short swing coat or a knee-length stroller.
“You can pair a stroller coat with jeans, you can put it over a dress, you can put it over a business suit,” she says. “There’s a million ways to wear it. So many fashion walls have been knocked down over the years, and fur isn’t just for dressing up anymore. It’s for doing everything in. It’s your everyday life. I wear it to the grocery store. But then I work from home a hundred hours a week, so going to the grocery store for me is a really good time out.”
But if you come across a vintage fur in your attic, or inherited a fur from your grandmother that you feel compelled to dispose of, you have several options. On her blog, Samantha Davis details several ways to recycle furs, including programs that give used furs to homeless people in cold climates, turn furs into teddy bears for mothers staying at shelters, and use furs for education and period re-creation.
“In the ’20s, it was more acceptable to parade around wearing the full bodies of dead animals.”
The Coats for Cubs program, started by the Humane Society of the United States and run by Buffalo Exchange, takes furs every winter, starting mid-January and running until Earth Day, April 22. These old furs are fashioned into beds for orphaned wildlife, who associate the texture with their lost mothers. “For orphaned wildlife, they’ve found that the donated furs are particularly effective in lending comfort and giving the feel of a missing maternal figure,” Griffin says.
Griffin says people can send their furs to In Defense of Animals, too. “We have a fur amnesty program, where people can send in their unwanted furs for a tax deduction,” Griffin says. “I actually use those in educational displays, protests, as well as donating them to wildlife rehabilitators. The only way you can prevent that suffering is to not buy or wear fur of any kind. And that’s vintage full-length coats or even gloves with fur trim.”
Davis, however, believes that vintage fur is essential for solving the problem.
“There are always going to be those who really dislike fur, and then there’s always going to be those in the middle, and then those who really like it,” Davis says. “So how can we get those in the middle and those who really like fur to buy second-hand? How can we change the new fur industry in such a way that they are producing less or turning to second-hand fur to recycle into new looks? If that can become part of the public consciousness, then we can alleviate the problem, because people as a whole are never going to stop liking fur.”
To learn more about identifying vintage fur, see Davis’ post “How to Identify Vintage Mink, Fox, Rabbit, Beaver & Raccoon Furs,” as well as the Vintage Fashion Guild’s Fur Resource. If you are interested in recycling your vintage fur, check out Davis’ article “How to Recycle Vintage Fur.”