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In defence of fur

Ignore the protests of naked celebs: fashion is the best possible use of animals' skins.

Josie Appleton

Topics Politics

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‘Fur is dead’, chanted the animal rights activists as they invaded a Burberry catwalk show in Milan a couple of days ago. ‘Burberry: fur shame’, read their placards.

In the Nineties, fur was material non grata. To wear fur was to appear selfish and callous – ‘scum’ was the word most frequently used to describe those who wore it. Supermodels such as Naomi Campbell and Cindy Crawford posed in ads for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), and other famous figures said they would ‘rather go naked than wear fur’.

Similar protests are still around today. This week PETA launched another anti-fur advert featuring nude celebrities, including Sadie Frost, imploring people to ‘Turn your back on fur’. Heather Mills McCartney has not only been in the headlines for her big-money divorce from Paul, but also for her campaigning against the use of cat and dog fur in China.

However, there are signs that the tide might be turning. The International Fur Trade Federation announced $12.77 billion worth of global fur sales for 2005, a rise for the seventh consecutive year, and up from $9.1 billion in 2000. Campbell and Crawford are now back in their fur coats, and collections from names such as Prada and Louis Vuitton are dripping with a variety of pelts.

Still, many fashion houses and designers keep their lines free of fur, including Ralph Lauren, Sadie Frost, Stella McCartney, Topshop, Selfridges, Liberty of London and H&M. Those who use fur are frequently shamefaced. Burberry mumbled the following statement: ‘As a luxury brand there will be occasions where the use of fur will be considered important to the design and aesthetics of a product. In those instances we will continue to use fur. However, we will not use fur if there is a serious concern that the fur has been produced by the unacceptable treatment of the animals concerned.’ (1)

There is no reason to be ashamed. A fur coat is the best possible use of fur, and fashion is the best possible use of a fur coat.

Anti-fur campaigners claim that we don’t need to use fur. In the words of sex symbol turned animals rights campaigner, Bridget Bardot, fur is just a ‘superficial luxury’ to satisfy our own vanity. ‘Designers who still use fur are heartless and shameless’, said a PETA spokesperson after the Milan catwalk invasion. The fur-defending American Vogue editor, Anna Wintour, had a dead raccoon thrown in her soup while she was sitting at a restaurant table; a 2002 PETA ad featured the singer Sophie Ellis Bextor holding up a skinned fox with the slogan, ‘Here is the rest of your coat’. In the 1980s, ads included a woman trailing blood from her fur coat, with the line: ‘It takes up to 40 dumb animals to make a fur coat – but only one to wear it’.

Fur fashion gets reduced to the bloodied corpse, the manacles, the cries of pain. Looking at a beautiful coat, they see not the artful object but the slain animal. ‘Fur looks better on its original owners’, says PETA, with the implication that on the animal fur is alive while on us it is merely dead stuff.

This is exactly the opposite of the truth. Just as a butterfly is never aware of the beautiful patterns on its wings, so a mink will wear its soft coat until death without ever appreciating it. For the mink, fur is just something that it carries around in the battle to survive, like claws or teeth.

By being made into a fur coat, that mink’s pelt is raised into something higher, just as a tree made into a violin is raised, or a cow made into a sumptuous steak is raised. A raw material becomes part of the human world; fur isn’t just on the back of an animal scratching around for food, but is instead worked on and admired as art. Indeed, it is only really by becoming a coat that a mink’s life can be said to have had any purpose at all.

So-called ‘superficial luxury’ is when our use of fur is at its highest. Fur was human beings’ first clothing (‘unto Adam and also to his wife did the Lord God make coats of skins, and clothed them’, says the Bible). As humans made their way out of Africa some 100,000 years ago, their naked skins could not endure the cold of Europe and northern Asia. At this stage they had not yet learned to weave and knit their own cloth, so they borrowed the fur of the animals of their region. It was fur use that allowed humans to spread throughout the world, reaching even the inhospitable wastelands of Siberia and crossing the icy Baring Straits into the Americas.

As societies developed, fur took on a richer and more symbolic significance. Fur became not just a material for survival but a mark of status and character – hence the leopard skin pelts of African chiefs, and the lion skin worn by the mythical Greek hero Hercules. In the Middle Ages there were strict rules limiting the wearing of different furs to different classes, with the richest and rarest pelts restricted to the backs of the nobility and commoners allowed only sheepskin. Fur now wasn’t just used for warmth but also for decoration, with the introduction of fur trimmings for cloth garments.

Yet it was only with modernity that fur became fashion, which meant that it could be appreciated purely as a beautiful material. A designer thinks of the texture, look and feel of a fur pelt, choosing those that are most suitable for the design he or she has in mind. It’s strange that the aesthetic use of nature is seen as decadent, because it actually makes the most use of different natural features and characteristics. A designer’s choice between mink or bear or fox isn’t made because they are cold and have to grab the nearest animal, or because they are restricted to a particular category of fur because of their status; rather it is based on reflecting on and appreciating the qualities of mink, bear and fox fur. These qualities of genuine fur – both the shine and the soft feel – can’t yet be achieved with artificial fur replacements.

We’ve come a long way since the first fur coats of early humans. These were crude, cut out around the shape of the animal skin, with little thought to appearance. Inuits wrapped up in their furs look square: the shapes of their bodies are submerged as they battle to stay warm. By contrast, fashion fur products are designed around the wearer, and huge amounts of effort are invested in getting the right effect. Madame Paquin, the dress designer at the head of a developing international fashion scene in the early twentieth century, made a coat in Canadian mink that used 300 skins, and took 100 hours of cutting and 1,000 hours of sewing (2). Fur coats were a key part of Edwardian elegance, cut to emphasise the figure of the wearer; and later, in the 1960s, designers experimented with dyeing fur crazy colours and introducing sweeping folds.

Today there are new and exciting possibilities for fur on the catwalk. As well as dyeing, and working fur into hip-hugging skirts and voluptuous cloaks, designers are also experimenting with new techniques. Some are ‘knitting’ fur into a mesh, to create lightweight and soft shining material; others are plucking it, removing the longer outer hairs to leave only the softer shorter hairs; or sheering it; or embellishing it with crystals.

To designers who say that they don’t want an animal to die for their art, I say their art clearly isn’t worth much. Fur shouldn’t be consigned to the Stone Age: we’re just finding out what it can do.

Josie Appleton is convenor of the Manifesto Club.

(1) Fighting the return of fur, Guardian, 18 September 2006

(2) Fur in Dress, Elizabeth Ewing, BT Batsford Ltd, 1981

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Topics Politics

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