Fur: A Sensitive History

Fur has built nations, decimated species, subjugated communities and driven fashion. It has inspired great works of art, created fortunes, demarcated society and has been the catalyst for desire and disgust in equal measure. Yet the subject of fur is generally a forgotten presence within the literature of dress history and theory; its economic, political, psychological and, indeed, fashionable significance largely overlooked. In this blog Jonathan Faiers introduces readers to some of the key topics he explores in his new book, Fur: A Sensitive History, and attempts to answer the question – why write about this ‘unspeakable’ subject, and why now?

Fur Thinking

Mink boxing gloves made by Frager for Sonny Liston 1963. Heritage Auctions, HA.com.

In 1963, as part of a publicity stunt, World Heavyweight Boxing Champion Sonny Liston had a pair of boxing gloves made from mink. The gloves were used during press interviews between Liston and newcomer Muhammad Ali (then still known as Cassius Clay), the joke being that the soft touch of mink would spare Clay’s ‘pretty face’ during Liston’s punishment of him in the upcoming title fight. As it turned out Clay’s face was spared not by mink but his superior performance, with Liston giving up in the 7th round.

Sporting trivia aside, what the mink gloves remind us of, whether we are opposed to the wearing of fur or not, is its essentially tactile appeal. Nothing else feels like fur; a pleasure we can all recognise when stroking our favourite pet or, indeed, touching our own or loved one’s hair. Whilst infinitely more numerous than on the human head, the hairs making up an animal’s fur share many of the same properties as our own, keeping us warm, registering excitement or fear, and of course a supreme sensuous experience. The closeness to our own hair reminds us of our original ‘furriness’ and our connection to animals both biological and symbolic. It is this proximity and, most importantly, the promise of transformation that accounts for the appeal of fur and fur garments, a rich, complex and problematic history that is explored in detail in Fur: A Sensitive History.

Fernand Khnopf, ‘Caresses‘, 1896. Oil on canvas. A supremely decadent representation of the transformation conveyed by the touch of fur that the wearing of animal skins traditionally promises. Royal Museums of Fine Art, Belgium. Public Domain/WikiCommons.

‘…there is no book in print that tells the complex history of our relationship with fur’

But why write about fur, and why now? A simple answer would be that there is no book in print that tells the complex history of our relationship with fur. Fur’s increasingly controversial status has meant that reasoned discussion of its historical, economic and cultural importance is rare, and it is this lack of serious research that Fur: A Sensitive History hopes to address.

Wearer’s Rights

After Hyacinth Rigaud, ‘Louis XV as a Child‘, c.1716-24. Oil on canvas. Ermine has traditionally been used for coronation robes and during the period of sumptuary legislation only the nobility were permitted to wear this symbol of social elevation. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY. Purchase, Mary Westmore Shively Bequest, in memory of her husband, Henry L. Shively, M.D.,1960

Fur has always been subject to criticism and restriction, from the historical sumptuary laws which decreed which sections of society were allowed to wear certain types of fur; generally finer and rarer furs were reserved for the upper classes – ermine’s use in regal and ceremonial dress being a reminder of this – while coarser shaggier furs were worn by the lower classes.

Today’s anti-fur movement may have eclipsed the economic and social divisions historical legislation against fur were anxious to maintain, but fur continues to divide opinion, and beneath the headline grabbing protests of the anti-fur lobby and the impending demise of fashionable fur (as more and more designers become fur free) lies a much more complex story.

Opposition to the wearing of fur emerges in the late eighteenth century from a number of radical reforming movements including the abolitionists, humane societies, early vegetarian movements and animal welfare organisations. One of the most surprising early arguments against the wearing of fur garments can be found in Henry Salt’s 1892 Animals’ Rights which suggested that fur garments were essentially deceptive being made of many small pieces which hide their construction and therefore reflected a society interested only in superficialities.

Diana Ross for Blackglama 1973. Designed by Bill King. Courtesy of the author.

Who has the right to wear fur and who has not, has shifted throughout history and we can perhaps see a legacy of the medieval sumptuary laws in the subsequent condemnation of fur wearing. For many Afro-Americans, especially in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, wearing fur was one of the only means of signifying worth. Fur was, and continues to be, understood as reward and power, as a sign of security and stability in an all too often insecure and insubstantial world and so is worn to give thanks at church, to mourn at funerals, to honour the beloved, to defy authority and to rejoice at celebrations. In the light of recent events a Harlem minister Reverend Johnnie Green Jnr.’s comment: “When the activists are more concerned about saving black lives than black minks, let me know” seems especially meaningful.

The ‘F’ Word

Not unlike the anti-fur movement, the history of fake fur has a surprisingly long and complex history. In Fur: A Sensitive History, fur – fake, faux and fun is explored, from a Bronze Age ‘fake fur’ hat constructed from intricately knotted threads to today’s imitation fur experiments made from recycled plastic bottles and plant-based materials.

Bronze Age ‘fake fur’ hat c.1365 BCE, Western Jutland, Denmark, made from intricately knotted thin threads to resemble fur. National museum of Denmark
Advertisement for Borgana, 1956. One of the first and most enduring synthetic fur manufacturers was Borg, whose trademark fabric was named Borgana. George Borg was supposed to have realised the potential of deep pile fabrics for the imitation fur industry when developing them for use in the production of paint rollers in the late 1940s. Courtesy of the author.

While furs produced to order from genetically modified collagen are as yet science fiction, the book also considers fur’s translation and representation into other materials, from medieval stained glass to spun gold finer than human hair. The faking, or at least substitution, of cheaper furs for more expensive since the Medieval period has made fake fur both controversial and a cause for economic concern; a concern that continues with today’s ecological controversy centred on the environmental damage caused by microfibres shed from longer haired and plush fake furs.

As the world continues its battle against the Coronavirus pandemic, any system that emerges from the crisis, including the mass production and consumption of clothing, must be radically re-thought. Amongst the surprising, seductive, and often violent journeys travelled in Fur: A Sensitive History, new or perhaps rediscovered narratives concerning our relationship to clothing, its emotional sustainably, its transformative power, and its possibilities for renewal and reinvention, might help us chart our future relationship to clothing.

Featured image credit: After Hyacinth Rigaud, ‘Louis XV as a Child‘, c.1716-24. Oil on canvas. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Purchase, Mary Westmore Shively Bequest, in memory of her husband, Henry L. Shively, M.D.,1960.


Jonathan Faiers is professor of fashion thinking at Winchester School of Art, University of Southampton.

His latest book, Fur: A Sensitive History, is the first and only book of its kind – a detailed and thoughtfully-reasoned study of the impact of fur on society, politics, and, of course, fashion.

Find more fashion history on the Yale Books Art Blog.

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