A brief history of fur in fashion

If, like me, you have been tragically glued to the news for the last six months, you will have recently seen that the Danish government has decided to cull millions of mink in the country due to a spread of coronavirus in mink farms Unsurprisingly, this has sparked outcry for animal lovers across Europe and the animal-rights community. From 2018-2019, the mink industry reported a turnover of one billion dollars a year, with China and Hong Kong providing the biggest market for mink fur. The highly publicised, imminent slaughter of the creatures raises a major question that has haunted the fashion industry for decades; why are we still killing animals for their fur in the name of fashion?

While some individuals desperately cling onto their beloved fur coats, for the majority of us our attitudes towards fur has changed significantly. Brands including Chanel, Gucci, Burberry, Versace, Vivienne Westwood and Maison Margiela have axed the use of fur in their collections over the last few years. Fashion magazines refuse to feature fur and many retailers no longer sell it. In today’s age - one defined by moral rectitude - such acts of cruelty are globally shunned.

But how did the fur trend come about? Why are we besotted with this symbol of antiquated luxury – especially when we are fully aware of the ethical ramifications of their production?

Throughout history, the fur trade has been widely considered a European invention. As early as the 11th-century, fur was worn by European royalty as a social symbol of wealth and status. In Medieval Britain and Italy, sumptuary laws were issued to reinforce social hierarchies which allowed befurred figures to mark their place in the higher rankings of society. The exact timeframe of the fur trade cannot be dated – primarily due to the fact that fur biodegrades. Therefore, the historical records of fur production are somewhat unreliable. However, as Eurocentric white-washed history commonly misconstrues, the fur trade is actually believed to originate from Aboriginal cultures. Aboriginal people across North America and Canada utilised animal products such as fur and meat as a means of survival, to stay warm and fed. When they started trading fur products with European countries, the necessity of fur was undermined by a European market pining for sartorial opulence.

What was once truly a love affair between European countries and the fur trade is now deemed a fashion fiasco. Yet, the issue of using fur to create clothing stems beyond the moral implications of slaughtering animals, it is also an environmental conundrum. Fur factory farms are highly damaging to ecosystems and they guzzle energy. Plus, the animals are often bred in squalor.

The most obvious solution to the fur debacle would be to turn to faux fur, a trend which continues to dominate the high street. However, as previously mentioned, real fur biodegrades – unlike faux fur. This poses another moral dilemma. As Karl Lagerfeld alleged, ‘fake fur pollutes the world more than anything else.’

Faux furs are usually made from synthetic polymeric fibres such as polyester and acrylic, which are both forms of plastic. Such chemicals are extracted from limestone, petroleum and coal which pollute our water and soil systems. When faux fur items end up in landfill, they can take up to one thousand years to decompose, unlike real fur which takes approximately six months to biodegrade naturally.

Faux fur seems like the go-to option when trying to emulate the regality of real fur while avoiding the ethical complications of donning animal hide. Yet, it requires a more thorough re-evaluation. Faux fur has infiltrated the trickle-down systems that operate within fast fashion today. The majority of faux fur items are produced quickly, cheaply and carelessly meaning the effect on the environment is monumental. Designers such as Silvia Fendi remain fervent champions of the use of fur due its ‘durability’ and ability to decompose. Catherine Saks and Barbara Potts of Saks Potts built a modern brand renowned for its colourful fur-trimmed coats, favouring individuality and luxury over animal welfare. The two designers equate their use of fur with the consumption of meat, leather, wool and other animal products, which posits a more complex moral plight concerning animal-rights that branches outside of the parameters of fashion.

It seems like a lose-lose situation. Either we choose between real fur which harms animals or faux fur which desecrates the natural world. Alternatively, there is the option to invest in pieces from designer labels such as Stella McCartney who work with Ecopel, a company that produces biodegradable faux fur from recycled plastic bottles. Unfortunately, while this is animal and eco-friendly, it’s not exactly bank balance friendly.

Fashion is a dirty business. The fur trade has evolved from a process of survival to a fluffy fashion fad for those with an enamour for glamour. There is no clear-cut solution as to how to approach fur in fashion. Maybe we shouldn’t invest in fur (be it real or fake) at all. The term, ‘shopping sustainably’ may seem paradoxical – but going forward it’s imperative in order to overhaul the dated ideals of our historically heinous fashion industry.


Tania Leslau

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I am an aspiring fashion journalist and have recently graduated from The University of Bristol with a first-class degree in History of Art. Having previously interned for companies such as Fiorucci and Hemsley London, I have decided to pursue a career in fashion journalism and will be starting a MA degree in Fashion Journalism at Central Saint Martins in January 2021.

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