Beauty, Feathers, Fur, and Fashion

by Michael Sones

Nature has always caused severe anxieties in man. It is beautiful, it is a source of bounty, but it is also unpredictable and dangerous. It can kill in an infinite variety of ways ranging from the bite of the spider to the ferocious winds of the hurricane. Even today, despite our power over the invisible atom, man is not Nature’s master. For hundreds of thousands of years humans were hunter-gatherers. Animals were our food, our competitors, our prey, our predators, and our companions. Now there is worry about global warming and anxieties about what that climactic change might bring.

Humans have worn fur and feathers for thousands of years for both practical reasons and for decoration. The past few decades has seen a lot of controversy over the use of fur as a fashion item. In 1972 there were 797 fur manufacturers in the United States and by 1992 there were only 211. There has been a corresponding decline in the number employed in the industry with 3,000 in the early 1980s dropping to 600 by the mid-1990s. According to animal rights activists the fur trade is responsible for the extinction of a dozen species of wolves, three species of bears and more than three species of tigers. They say that fur as a fashion item is clearly on the way out in the light of public opinion.

Top fashion designers such as Oleg Cassini, Calvin Klein, and Bill Blass are refusing to work with fur.Yet recently there is clear evidence that fur is coming back into fashion and other top designers as Yves St. Laurent, Dolce and Gabbana, and Versace are all using fur. Fur is described by its wearers variously as warm, sumptuous, voluptuous, soft, and sensuous. It is also durable and comfortable. Fur is expensive, a lot of labour goes into the production of a fur garment. You can pay anywhere from $1500-4000 US for a mink jacket with the starting price of a full-length mink coat being about $6,000. The wearing of fur garments are an indicator of wealth, status and luxury. There is a propaganda war going on between animal rights activists and those in fur industries. Animal rights activists accuse the fur industry of cruel and inhumane treatment of the animals saying that they are kept crammed together in small cages and inhumanely killed. Fur industry specialists say that it is in the fur farmers interests to look after the animals and feed them well as that leads to the best quality fur. The International Fur Trade says that it supports the conservation of species and is opposed to trade in endangered species. Fur is undoubtedly warm, long-lasting and environmentally friendly in a way in which synthetics are not. The International Fur Trade say that the use of fur supports the economies of traditional communities who live close to the land.

Some members of the fur trade say that the tactics of the animals rights lobby alienated a lot of public support. There have been improvements in the ways in which animals are trapped and killed so that the publicity is not so bad.

Fur Traders Descending the Missouri

The fur trade has an ancient history. The Phoenicians and other early civilisations traded in furs. In more recent centuries the fur trade, when trappers had hunted beaver, fox, wolf and many other animals for the European fur markets, led to the expansion into the North American continent and decades of conflict between British and French.

It also led to the depletion of many animal species and the eventual destruction of Indian cultures. About 85 percent of fur these days comes from farmed fur-bearing animals. However, there are still about 80,000 trappers in Canada about half of whom are natives or Metis. The most common farmed fur animal is the mink, which yields about 80 per cent of the thirty million pelts farm produced annually, followed by fox which yields about 20 percent). 64 percent of fur farming takes places in Northern Europe and a further eleven per cent occurs in North America. Fur is also farmed in Russia, the Ukraine,and the Baltic states. Production figures for mink and fox farming vary annually, but most recent figures (1996) show that approximately thirty million pelts were produced in that year (80 per cent mink; 20 per cent fox).

The Asian fur market is expanding particularly dramatically and the recent Honk Kong fur show (2000) attracted record numbers of exhibitors from all over the world.

In civilized societies human fashions can clearly be very dangerous to the natural world.

Between 1870 and 1920, at the height of the feather trade, tens of millions of birds were killed mainly white egrets/herons and small terns. Many of these feathers were sought, not for feather beds or feather pillows, but to adorn women’s hats. Many birds became extinct by the end of the nineteenth century such as the Eskimo curlew, passenger pigeon, great auk, Labrador duck, Carolina hen, and health hen.

Fur garments with the hair worn on the outside only really came into fashion in the nineteenth century though fur accessories such as hats, gloves, and linings and been worn for hundreds of years. Furrier guilds came into existence in the fourteenth century.

The prominence of corsets in eighteenth and nineteenth century fashion led to a great need for whalebone. Whales were hunted for their oil for fuel and their whalebone for corsets.

In the late nineteenth and early twentieth century the demand for arctic fox fur led to a radical change in the Inuit culture and way of life. Inuit society had traditionally been cooperative and trapping is a solitary activity. Hunting was traditionally considered manly while trapping had been for women and children.

In the twentieth century the jaguar and leopard were hunted for their fur for fashionable coats. Pictures of baby seals being clubbed to death for their fur coats on the ice by Newfoundland fishermen outraged the world.

While fur has natural qualities, such as its warmth and durability which make it attractive, its primary appeal as a fashion item almost certainly has to do with its luxury status. Many hundreds of hours can go into the making of a fur coat. A man with a beautiful woman on his arm who is wearing a fur coat indicates to all that he is a man of means and high status. This will immediately enhance his appeal to women who, in cultures across the world, are generally are attracted to high status men when it comes to thinking of potential mates and fathers for their children. The rich luxuriousness of fur enhances the beauty of a beautiful woman.

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