Fashion’s final taboo

Is it ever okay to wear fur?

Marilyn Monroe arriving in a fur stole at Ciro’s nightclub, 1954

Are there circumstances in which it is ethical – in terms of impact on the environment or cruelty to animals – to wear fur? As winter approaches and gas pipelines are cut, perhaps it’s time to examine the issue.

Once upon a time, furs meant wealth and glamour as part of a very uncomplicated transaction: the rarer the beast, the greater the prestige. Furriers existed on every high street, fur was big business from Bond Street to Fifth Avenue, and on every designer’s catwalk. Not for nothing is Betty Draper’s first job in late-’50s Manhattan as a house model for a furrier. Whole industries sprang up around fur, from storage (great walk-in freezers to keep your mink from moulting over the summer) to specialist cleaning. But in the late ‘80s the tide started to turn: as a result of the anti-cruelty lobby and the growth of vegetarianism on health and moral grounds, fur went out of style.

The arguments used to go, if you’re prepared to eat meat, you can’t object to wearing fur; if you wear leather, you can’t protest about animals being killed for clothing. But increased scrutiny of the conditions in which animals are kept and used for our benefit, from pharmaceuticals to foodstuffs, means we are in a position to make choices on a more detailed scale than ever before. What about feathers? Angora? Eggs? It is getting harder and harder, to put it more cynically, to ignore the pain and cruelty (as well as skill and craftsmanship) that might be involved in the making of our sausages or our handbags. Most of us do not impose blanket ethical principles on our purchases: we change by degrees, and weigh up options. This winter, even if mink could be raised entirely without cruelty, a fur trim or the latest Birkin bag feels less of an essential than a modest dose of animal protein in our dinner.

It should be said that the wholesale rejection of animal fur in fashion is not quite a worldwide phenomenon, having taken hold more significantly in anglophone nations (perhaps not unconnected to our politicans’ enthusiasm for stoking culture wars) than elsewhere in the world. In Italy, fur may not be worn with quite the same enthusiasm as it was when I lived in Modena in the 1980s – when the corridor where fur-clad mothers gathered to wait for their children to emerge from my classroom resembled the wardrobe that served as a portal to Narnia – but it doesn’t provoke gasps of horror, either. The sight of real fur on a British high street or a London Fashion week catwalk, however, is vanishingly rare: it comes as a genuine shock and is assumed to be a statement of defiance or provocation. After a generation of Peta videos, even the least squeamish of us have been sufficiently converted to find the sight of this season’s Schiaparelli-pink Fendi fur puffa a turn-off.

With carbon footprints to be considered, and a new, eco-minded generation embracing second-hand with unprecedented enthusiasm, the vintage look could be the last refuge for fur as a touchstone for glamour. But do even vintage furs and skins have a morally justifiable place in the equation? Can we watch Marilyn Monroe running down the jetty at Palm Beach in heels and a snowy-white arctic fox-fur stole cascading from her lovely shoulders? Can we gaze with pure pleasure at Suzy Parker emerging from a Park Avenue apartment in leopard cape and matching tilt hat in 1952? Largely, we can: in part it’s autres temps, autres moeurs and the past being a foreign country, where things are done differently, including cruelty.

It’s also our enduring addiction to old-world sparkle. Last week I saw a girl of perhaps twenty in heels, bare legs and a full-length vintage white mink, sitting at a provincial bus stop on her mobile phone. My jaw dropped, partly because the sight was so rare, but also because she looked as fabulous as a bird of paradise. I did wonder briefly if the wheel had come full circle – that having never known anything but fun-fur, she hadn’t understood she was wearing a real animal.

Does it make a difference if the animal in question died 70 years ago, and that faux fur, its principal ingredient being plastic, is very much worse for the environment? Plenty have reached the point of no return, where even old fur and certainly an oil-based simulacrum of it are abhorrent. But so seductive are the myths of golden-age Hollywood, whether it’s Norma Shearer in a marabou peignoir or Joan Crawford in hip-length ocelot, that I suspect we’ll still be arguing the point for some years to come – or at least, while stocks last.

Christobel Kent is a Gold Dagger-nominated author. She has lived in Essex, Modena, Florence and Cambridge and has written seventeen novels, ten of which are set in Italy. Her latest novel “In Deep Water” is out now

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Arts & Culture, December 2022, Style Maven

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