THERE’S something buried deep within us which draws us to fur’s sensuous touch
words: Eilidh Nuala Duffy
border illustrations: Jessica Mai Walker
IN an episode of Friends, the actress Lisa Kudrow’s character Pheobe Buffay – a staunch vegetarian and caricature of the 1990s cosmopolitan hippy – inherits her mother’s old fur coat and battles with an inner conflict: should she keep it, should she not? She believes it is wrong to wear fur, but she begins to succumb to its pleasures until she imagines a city-dwelling squirrel is whispering to her, criticising her as she stands on the street. Although people often stick to one of two camps – pro-fur or anti-fur – many of us mortals live with this inner conflict portrayed by Kudrow.
This is because fur reveals clashing human desires buried deep within our psyche. It represents what Adam Douglas describes in his fabulous book The Beast Within “the violent behaviour required for the continuance of civilisation” which is “at odds with an instinctive, albeit idealistic, human desire for peace and tranquility”. In other words, fur is symbolic of our need for violence which is at once unattractive but also totally instinctive.
It is this duality that means fur has never really gone out of style. Gucci, Versace, Chanel, Michael Kors and Maison Margiela have all decided to go fur-free in the past few years, joining a list of over 928 retailers organised by the Fur Free Alliance. Kors once said he “[treats] fur like another fabric, another texture” so it’s hard to imagine that he would relinquish it without some kind of ulterior motive. As an industry, fashion just can’t decide whether it loves or hates using fur.
15,000 year old cave painting The Sorcerer of Les Trois Frères
During the 1880s the millinery industry was responsible for murdering 30 million birds annually for decoration. In 1887 Mary Eliza Haweis, a popular writer in her time, wrote the famous line “a corpse is never really a pleasant ornament” and alongside other Victorian critics of the trend managed to make the wearing of whole dead birds rather a faux pas. In 1889 The Plumage League was founded in Manchester by Emily Williamson and in the same year Eliza Philips founded the Fur, Fin and Feather Folk in Croydon. Both organisations grew from the idea that killing birds purely to make clothing was evil. They would eventually join together to form the RSPB (Royal Society for the Protection of Birds) in 1891.
By the 1960s anti-fur organisations were forming and the 1980s and 1990s saw a mainstream effort to demonise the wearing of fur by animal rights groups en masse. David Bailey’s 1986 It takes 40 dumb animals to wear a fur coat but only one to wear it campaign for Lynx and PETA’s I’d rather go naked than wear fur ad launched in 1994 starring celebrities and supermodels alike have both gone down in the annals of recent media history. Then by the late 2000s fur was back in full force – each of PETA’s original model pack, minus Christy Turlington, has since been caught wearing fur.
The International Fur Federation was established in 1949 to promote and regulate the fur business. They believe that it is the pressure from loud voices on social media which have altered the big brands’ latest choice on fur. “It’s like a domino effect” an intern who explained that everyone in her office was too busy to speak over the phone told me via email, “it has become the new ‘it’ thing”. She also claims that sales of fur are not being affected by this new trend despite specifying that they “don’t…have access to statistics on fur sales” so really, this is just an assumption. The rise of social media has now rendered the fur game “unfortunately unfair”.
Mesolithic frontlet found at the Star Carr archaeological dig site in Yorkshire – archaeologists believe they were used in shamanistic hunting ceremonies
To wear fur “is completely idiotic”, says Mikayla Raines, founder of SaveAFox Rescue in Lakeville, Minessota, “unless you are living off grid in a cold climate and surviving off the land”, that is. “The corporations behind these products are literally working against you knowing how the industry works” Aidan Koch, founder of IFIAAR (The Institute for Interspecies Art and Relations) explains why they believe people are still wearing fur. Sirrius Lawson, a representative from PETA, agrees. “It is increasingly rare that people know about how fur is produced” and when they do know “consumer apathy is something we inevitably encounter”.
As long as there is a fur market there will be a debate around its legitimacy. Regardless of whether it is right or wrong there is an unending fascination with the otherworldly visual and sensual qualities of fur. “I think fur, in a way, is like no other material” Andrea Martin, a spokesperson from the British Fur Trade Association tells me. Wearers are attached to their furs, there is “emotion behind different pieces they love and they’ve had for a long time…it’s very different to regular material”. Rebecca Bradley, a young London-based furrier tells me she loves working with fur because it “has a feel like nothing else”. Fur has a sensation that is similar to cuddling your pet cat. Even as a cute pom pom on a keyring it can never truly be separated from its origins as a fluffy animal.
It’s materiality is far from our plasticky world and unlocks the door to primeval senses, linking us back to a nature we no longer tend to engage in; serving as a reminder that we used to exist in a fluctuating and unpredictable ecosystem. Wearing an animal signals an affinity with the natural world no matter how unnatural the acquiring of the animal was.
Woodcut from a helmet from the Vendel period in Sweden (550 - 790) – the Norse god Odin is followed by a berserker (“bear-shirt”)
In Alexander McQueen’s Autumn-Winter 1996 collection Dante one model dons a deer-skull headdress complete with antlers, two eerie eyes bored into the skull. Worn just over the forehead, the horns jut out from the model’s head in a satisfyingly antler-like way. Two years later in 1998 the milliner Dai Rees covered a sheep’s pelvis in Swarovski crystals. These two accessories recall images such as the 15,000 year old cave painting The Sorcerer of Les Trois Frères and bear an uncanny resemblance to 11,000 year old Mesolithic “frontlets” found at the Star Carr archaeological dig site in North Yorkshire, two holes drilled into the skull at similar positions on the head.
It is thought that back in the days before written history we looked up at the sky and thought: damn, if only I could have wings! But that was out of the question. Then we looked at those large bodies of water which were so precious to us and thought about swimming – turns out we weren’t so good at the water thing without boats. After that we looked around us at our fellow land-dwellers and, dear lord, we were still slower and weaker than all of them. So what could we do with those big brains of ours? Become the animal. So within prehistoric shamanistic practises and hunting societies humans channelled the energy of whatever beast they were wearing in order to make magic – or so we can tell from what little evidence there is painted on or carved into the walls of the caves of our ancestors.
After the advent of woven fabric around 7000 to 8000 years ago skins were no longer our primary fabric for clothing but their shapeshifting qualities persisted. In Old Norse culture the berserkers – meaning “bear-shirts” – were vicious warriors who were part of a society that worshipped bears back when they still roamed the forests of Northern Europe. They would wear the skin of the animal and become them in battle. It is from them we get our word berserk.
Witch feeding her familiars from the anti-witch pamphlet A Rehearsall both Straung and True of Hainous and Horrible Acts Comitted by Elizabeth Stile (1579)
The emergence of modern science in 17th century Europe was to alter Western perspective on the earth entirely. Before and during the medieval period, nature was typically perceived as the feminine carer and provider for humankind personified through the figure of “Mother Earth”. There came a general shift in the Western perception of nature from this mother figure to an entity which was to be feared, dissected and controlled.
Women were not seen as fully human, but looked upon as existing in the liminal space between human and animal. Eve was, after all, created as companion to Adam when all the other beasts would not suffice. Up until as recently as the 19th century women were still generally thought of by a significant cast of men as part of the fauna; the French naturalist Alphonse Toussenel claimed that women were just the in-between stage of man and animal, hence why they enjoyed wearing feathers and furs so much. Even today it is only white cisgender heterosexual men who sit comfortably within the realm of totally normal. We still refer to sexualised women as feline and older women who have relationships with younger men as “cougars”. In both cases the referencing to animals is reductive.
The woman dressed in fur is the ultimate threat to masculinity, the evil witch that medieval European Christianity feared so much. During the witch-hunts of the Late Middle Ages it was not just healers and diviners who were burned at the stake but also rebel women. Women who would talk back; disobedient, intimidating women and women who, like wild animals, men could not control. Most witches were associated with animals, whether they were accused of being shapeshifters or kept a companion used for communicating with the devil.
Three witches with their familiars from the anti-witch pamphlet The Wonderful Discoveries of the Witchcrafts of Margaret and Phillip Flowers (1619)
“I think for all our civilisation we kind of romanticise something around throwing off the restraints of civilisation, throwing caution to the wind, being wild, sexual,” Catherine Harper, Irish artist, academic and activist tells me over the phone. For Harper, anti-fur campaigning has been part of her entire adult life. At just 19 after moving to Belfast for University, Harper fell in with the first animal rights group formed in Northern Ireland and was active until she left for England 11 years later. “Of course if we lived in the wild it wouldn’t be like that at all, it would be horrible – we’d be cold and hungry…so there’s a kind of romance around that which really flies in the face of conventional civilisation which is kind of tidy and tight, following rules.” An escape from the realities of the 21st century fur “drips with wildness and decadence”. It is not just the fur itself which animalises the wearer “we also think of fur with high heels, highly painted nails, very made up, all of that together it’s not wildness but it kind of signifies claws and big eyes.” The woman in fur is not simply human but is transformed into a wild creature.
Advertising in the 21st century still references the beastly, dangerous associations that come with fur. Harvey Nichols’ January 2019 advertisement for a Lilly e Violetta Iberian Lynx fur coat claimed that the coat was “the pinnacle of trend-setting bravery” and mentioned its “raw power”. The woman who would buy such a coat must be terribly bold, a match for the wild cat’s feral nature. As Angela Carter writes: “A free woman in an unfree society will be a monster.” And monster she still is.