Misadventures in the Fur Trade
Fashion alarms have been going off in my head every recent winter in Midtown Manhattan, loud as any ambulance siren or shrieking subway car. I’ve started seeing more people wearing fur—coats or trim, often dyed in eye-catching colors like blue or orange. What is going on? Tragically, fur has made a comeback.
But this is anecdotal evidence from someone who is fashion-challenged. So I searched the Internet for clippings from last fall’s New York Fashion Week, one of the fashionistas’ most important events of the year, which previewed fall and winter clothes for this year. The results were alarming. Women’s Wear Daily reported, “Fur, fur and more fur.” “The fashionably rich will likely look richer in coming months. Miles of fur and fur trims (sable, mink and fox),” Knight Ridder reported. “Fur—faux and real—was conspicuous by its presence,” said The Australian, adding that designer Michael Kors was “also having a fur moment.”
The clever, bubbly tone of such fashion writing, in the way of most mainstream media, does nothing to question the morality of the trend. They can retort that they are only reporting the facts, while they are conveniently appearing “with it” and not alienating advertisers. Major consumer and trade fashion magazines, of course, have been routinely reporting on fur’s comeback without qualms. Media coverage of fashion is about what’s hot and what’s not, and rarely about what’s right or wrong. Ethics in fashion—concerns about sweatshop labor or animal rights—bubbles up from grassroots movements, which can force the media to pay attention.
Some might question whether these high fashion shows have much to do with reality. Few can afford the outfits worn by the impossibly thin models walking the catwalks. Well, they do influence fashion, even among the proles. In The Devil Wears Prada, Meryl Streep, playing a barely disguised version of Vogue Editor-in-Chief Anna Wintour, explains that high fashion is important because the trends trickle down to the hoi polloi. The affordable Penney, for instance, is selling fur, drawing protests from activists.
Fur sales have been increasing in the United States and around the world, according to the International Fur Trade Federation (IFTF). The trade organization reports that $13.4 billion in fur garments were sold in the 2005-06 season, a 5.6 percent increase over the previous season. According to a study by Southwick Associates, a research firm commissioned by the trade group Fur Information Council of America, sales of fur and fur-trimmed apparel and accessories in the United States in 2005 (the last year for which statistics are available from IFTF) reached $1.82 billion.
Statistics vary, of course, depending on the source. Yet it’s obvious that fur is still a viable industry. Why? A couple of theories:
First, some animal advocacy groups have relied heavily on celebrities -- models, actors and athletes -- to promote the anti-fur campaign. But using endorsements can backfire, for the worlds of fashion and pop culture are fickle. One advocacy group’s longtime ad campaign featured supermodel Naomi Campbell, who has since openly worn furs. Activists who seek to make the anti-fur stance trendy through the frisson of celebrity and of soft porn forget that in the pop culture universe every trend begets an anti-trend. Now, hipsters such as Jade Jagger and Kate Moss wear fur, perhaps because it’s rebellious. Longtime vegetarian Madonna was lambasted in the British press in December for wearing a chinchilla coat. But to pop stars, the only bad publicity is no publicity at all.
Another problem has resulted, ironically, from the mainstreaming of the anti-fur crusade. The mammals being killed—mink, foxes, seals—were sentimentalized by speciesism. People were horrified by the barbarity of the containment and killing of these beautiful animals. But outside of the vegetarian community, there was little concern for other animals being exploited for human clothing: cattle for leather and sheep for wool. People who were outraged by animals being killed for the sheer “vanity” of fur were accused of hypocrisy.
While fur farming is banned in Northern Ireland, Wales and England, it is still legal in Ireland. Rose Anderson, a spokesperson for the Irish Fur Breeders Association, said, “People are fed up being told what to do and what to wear. They don’t want to be dictated to any more. And they are waking up to the hypocrisy surrounding fur. How can people who wear sheepskin and leather, or more importantly eat a bit of cheap bacon for breakfast, attack people who wear fur?”
Indeed, the only consistent argument against fur farming is a vegan one: all animals have an inherent dignity and a right not to be bred for commercial gain and slaughter—whether they’re cute or not. It’s deeply inconsistent to say you’re against wearing fur while still carrying your iPod in a leather case.
Another way in which the issue has been blurred is through “faux” fur. If killing animals unnecessarily for their fur is wrong, why send an ambiguous message by wearing faux fur? Unless your “fur” is clearly fake, who will know that you are opposed to the slaying and skinning of animals? And as the recent scandals about the provenance of “faux” fur—some actually from dogs or cats or raccoon dogs or even more traditional fur-sourced species—have shown, you don’t always know where that coat or collar comes from. Dyeing furs has the same effect. Like the cut and packaged chickens in grocery stores, dyed furs bear little resemblance to the animals who’ve been killed.
The same goes for mock leather, which can be crafted to resemble genuine leather shoes, belts and bags. Again, as no one knows whether your accessories are real or fake leather, you are missing an opportunity to advertise that you oppose exploiting other animals for clothing. Unless, of course, you wear a button advertising that “no animals were harmed in the making of this outfit.”
While wearing fur became verboten in the ’90s, the culture has changed over the first decade of the 21 st century. Consumerism and materialism reign once again, and a perfect way to show off wealth is by wearing a $50,000 fur coat. This is true in regions outside the West as well, a development that is hard for Western anti-fur activists to deal with. The IFTF cites considerable growth in sales in Eastern European, Russian and Far Eastern markets. As the engine of capitalism has brought wealth to a few in Eastern Europe, Russia and China, fur has become an important status symbol. “Fur is prestigious. We will continue to promote it,” said the editor-in-chief of Russian Vogue, Alyona Doletskaya.
Still, one can’t allow oneself the luxury of despair. Many major designers have generally avoided fur, including Calvin Klein, Ralph Lauren, Vivienne Westwood, Betsey Johnson, Stella McCartney, Todd Oldham and Kenneth Cole. Those who still use it should be encouraged to change with reasoned, diplomatic arguments rather than emotional rhetoric.
In my research for this essay, I found an article in Time magazine about fur’s comeback. It was dated January 13, 1958. Clearly, we will just have to work harder to rid the world of this latest, and ugly, comeback. For a source of inspiration, consider a poem by the great Russian writer Yevgeny Yevtushenko -- a poem I first read in, of all places, Vogue. In “Monologue of a Polar Fox on an Alaskan Fur Farm,” a fox escapes from a cage and enjoys a few moments of ecstatic freedom before returning to the familiar, although illusory, security of the cage. While rich in detail, the poem is a metaphor for the struggle between the unknown and the familiar, however horrible. “He who's conceived in a cage will weep for a cage,” the poem reads in John Updike's translation. Our task is to keep the fur-bearers from being conceived in cages, and free the fur-wearers from their mental pens.
- Sharon Edelsen, “Straightforward New York Season Pleases Buyers,” Women’s Wear Daily (12 Feb. 2007).
- Jackie White, “NY Fashion Week Wrap-Up,” Knight Ridder as printed in The Arizona Republic (12 Feb. 2007).
- Sharon Krum, “Tight and Bright in Big Apple,” The Australian (9 Feb. 2007).
- See Nadine Brozan, “Chronicle,” New York Times (20 Dec. 1996).
- “Rights Groups Target Penney on Fur,” Forbes (12 Jan. 2007).
- See Maxine Frith, “Fury at Madonna’s Coat of Many Chinchillas,” The Independent (8 Dec. 2006).
- “The Fur Factor,” Lilith e-zine (1 Oct. 2006).
- “Fury at Madonna’s Coat of Many Chinchillas,” note 6 above.
- Gemma O'Doherty, “Why Fur Is No Longer an F-word,” The Independent (19 Feb. 2005).
- Kate Galbraith, “That Touch of Mink Is Back in Demand,” International Herald Tribune (2 Jan. 2007).
- Luke Harding, “Getting Hot Under the Collar Over Russian’s Fur Coats,” The Guardian (5 Feb. 2007).
- Fur Free Alliance; available: www.infurmation.com.
- “Comeback,” Time (13 Jan. 1958).
- Yevgeny Yevtushenko, The Collected Poems, 1952-1990 (Henry Holt, 1992).