In late March, a growing movement to outlaw fur looked to deliver a blow to the jugular in the United States. Lawmakers in New York City are proposing a measure that would ban the sale of all non-vintage furs, accompanying a state-wide proposal to ban both the production and sale of any items made with trapped or farmed fur.
Still the largest market for fur in the country, the news comes off the back of momentum that sees a ban in San Francisco take effect this year, and a ban in Los Angeles proposed this year take effect in 2021. These changes have reignited a polarised debate about the ethics and sustainability of our use of animal products. Among animal-rights activists, fur is a symbol of cruelty in the name of opulence. To others, it is merely another cog in the wider machine of consumption patterns, the microscopic attention given to these products viewed as hypocritical, given the comparatively minute attention given to the wool and leather industry.
Whilst enveloped within a heated debate over its place in fashion today, the story of our relationship to fur is one that was once far removed from the realm of Fendi mink coats and Moncler fox hats.
Estimated that humans began wearing fur over 170,000 years ago, much of Prehistorical life revolved around the fur-bearing animal. Providing food, warmth and a material that could be both waterproof and windproof, wild fur was an invaluable commodity for surviving the elements. From the end of Prehistory onwards, it became woven into the social and economic framework of societies, shifting perception away from fur as a necessity against the cold to a symbol of wealth and power.
At the height of Antiquity, wealthy Romans and Greeks were but a few of the many that appreciated expensive furs made from the likes of wolf, mink and fox. Whilst they mainly dressed in wool and linen, its position as a luxurious commodity in a global system of trade ensured its position as an integral part of the wider economy. Lions pelts were used for standard-bearers in the Roman army, forming a fundamental part of their headgear in combat. Further down the line, fur became such a valuable commodity that the emperor Honorius went as far as to issue a decree in 397AD forbidding his court to wear fur, just to ensure its high trading value.
By the medieval period in England, fur was considered so luxurious that laws were introduced in the 1300s that regulated which social classes could wear certain furs. A series of sartorial laws passed across the period ensured that class distinctions were made explicitly through clothing. Those at the bottom of the social hierarchy could only wear lambskin, rabbit and cat, meanwhile royalty and nobility indulged in luxury garments fashioned from mink, sable and chinchilla.
Over time, as the fashion industry in Europe developed, and demand for luxury fur increased, the 1870s ushered in the beginning of fur farming, the systematic breeding of animals solely for their pelts. This was a process that would ultimately become the primary attack of anti-fur movements from the 1980s onwards.
Before these movements could precipitate, however, the decades before marked a very different cultural image of fur. Following years of frugality during World War II, women emerged from the uniformity of a rationed lifestyle with resurgent enthusiasm for furs. Once again, they became individualistic expressions of wealth and status, however this time pop culture inextricably linked the craze to feminine identity itself. American movies like The Lady Wants Mink (1953) and Make Mine Mink (1960) presented the fur coat as if it were a secondary sexual characteristic. Cartoons like ‘The First Mink’ by Alex Graham in Punch showed women reluctant to take off their fur coats at cocktail parties or even in summertime. Mainstream criticism of this cultural trend found its way into movies like 101 Dalmatians, where the villain, Cruella de Vil, is driven by a crazed desire for animal fur. This perception of its use as excessive and grotesque would set the tone for anti-fur campaigns in the following period.
If the pro-fur craze was centred around feminine identity, it seemed less than a coincidence that it was women who ignited the movements aiming to ostracise the controversial trend. Brigitte Bardot, a famous French actress and model, became one of the first celebrities to lead the anti-fur charge, becoming heavily involved in anti-sealing and anti-fur movements during the 1970s. Bardot and other celebrities worked to change consumers opinions on fur through exposing the unethical treatment of animals on fur farms. Running parallel to this were campaigns by the British animal rights organization Lynx, who alongside PETA (founded in 1980), refashioned fur clothing as a symbol of shame rather than opulent pride.
Together, they spearheaded a surge in anti-fur sentiment that saw sales of fur products in Britain fall by 75% between 1985-1990, according to Julia Emberly, author of The Cultural Politics of Fur. More recently, decisions by the likes of the Old Spitalfields Market to ban the sale of fur in 2017, and the first fur-free London Fashion Week in its history last year presents a culture that appears to be steering away from its infatuation with the pelt.
However, the image of a trade on its way out the door, crumbling at the feet of a domineering anti-fur movement is a guise all too many Brits have fallen for. Speaking to Isobel McNally, Campaigns Manager for the Coalition Against the Fur Trade, she said: ‘The vast majority of the British public are not aware of the magnitude of the trade in real animal fur beyond the UK. Many people are shocked to learn that the Eastern, Scandinavian, Central European and North American fur trade is continuing to profit from the farming and trapping of animals’.
As the intensity of anti-fur movements swept over cities like London and New York, increasing demand from newly wealthy nations like South Korea and China shifted the fur trade away from the gaze of the unwitting British consumer. Now a $40 billion industry, production of animal pelts has more than doubled since the 1990s, to around 100 million skins a year in 2015, according to figures from Forbes. Accounting for 70-80% of the world’s fine fur exports, the Chinese have grown to consume over half of the world’s fur products, according to British Vogue.
So how does an industry, once the subject of intense ostracism, revive itself so successfully? Thanks to the cunning manoeuvres of fur auction houses, planned years in advance. At the height of anti-fur sentiment in Europe, auction houses like Kopenhagen Fur strategically wooed young designers and design students, with financial incentives to feature animal skins in their collections, creating a pro-fur impression early on in their careers. Consciously working with a generation of millennials removed from the anti-fur campaigns of the 80s and 90s, this approach worked with both designers and consumers alike.
Julia Maria Iverson of Kopenhagen Fur, talking to National Geographic, describes the process as ‘the fur journey…we start with the young consumer buying a fur key ring, then maybe a little later she has more money for a fur bag’, she said. ‘Eventually she buys a full coat…it’s all part of the agenda, to inspire the upcoming generation of women’.
In light of this, what’s in store for the future of fur? Despite the scale of the industry and the mammoth profit it reaps each year, Isobel is hopeful.
‘The majority of the public are opposed to its use, and with the recent news that the large fur producing country, Norway, is to phase out its fur farms by 2025, we would expect fur to become a rarer sight’.
With 6,000 fur farms in the EU that account for 63% of global mink production, according to the Committee on Agriculture and Rural Development, Norway’s decision and recent developments in the fashion mecca of America could be the catalyst that kick-starts worldwide change. The pressure fur farmers have faced in the last several decades to radically improve their welfare standards presents a trade keen to mould itself to the contours of the ongoing conversation about fur’s place in fashion. Whilst this appears promising for those opposed to its use, the outsourcing of farming to regions in Asia, where many of these rules don’t apply makes it unlikely that, whether fox or faux, the fur aesthetic is one that will disappear from our cultural imaginations anytime soon.