Skin Deep: The Fall of Fur
For many women in postwar Britain a fur coat - preferably mink - represented the height of luxury, the ultimate object of desire. In popular culture the ambition to own a fur coat became a defining quality of femininity, tantamount to a secondary sexual characteristic. Cartoons made play of this, as when Punch published ‘The First Mink’, a series of drawings by Alex Graham which showed women reluctant to take off their fur coats in summertime, at cocktail parties in warm rooms or even while doing the washing up. In one of these images a tiny girl with a big smile parades before a mirror in her mother’s fur, its hemline trailing on the floor. If a woman was lucky a rich husband or male protector would buy her a fur. If she came into money in her own right it surprised no one if the first thing she bought herself was a fur coat. Fur epitomised a dream of glamour, the height of fashion, a longing for comfort and success.
It had been worn throughout history but never by so many as in the affluent West in the first half of the last century. The fur trade had grown immeasurably since the Hudson’s Bay Company had been incorporated by Royal Charter in 1670. Demand for hats made from felted beaver had begun to decline by the mid-19th century but coats - fashioned from a variety of pelts, but particularly sealskin - remained popular among men and women. Those worn by Victorian gentlemen tended to have the fur facing inwards as a lining; whereas women’s coats fashionably sported bands of fur as a trim around the hemline, collars and cuffs. Prince Albert was supplied with ‘a coat of Tartar foal-skin’ by the internationally renowned furrier Nicholay and Son, with whom he worked closely in organising the Great Exhibition of 1851. Later in the century Nicholay merged with Debenham and Freebody, which became famous for its supply of furs to royalty, including coronation robes and even a mantle of black fox for Tsar Alexander II of Russia.
The late Victorians and Edwardians marvelled at what they saw as the ‘Romance of Furriery’. The Franco-British Exhibition at the White City in 1908 featured four ‘Dioramas’ organised by the celebrated French furrier Revillon Frères, showing a company steamer amid ice in Hudson Bay in Canada, a remote fur post, pelts in a Bokhara bazaar and elegant fur-clad women seated in a box at the opera. The landmark documentary film Nanook of the North, with its memorable account of an Eskimo (Inuit) family, sheathed in fur trousers against the Arctic winds, building igloos and harpooning walrus and seal, was funded by Revillon Frères in 1920-21. Meanwhile, the writer Elinor Glyn (1864-1943) was writhing, semi-clad, on tiger skins and writing sensational, best-selling fiction about miscreant heroines and ‘It’girls who exuded sex-appeal. She was soon to turn her talents to Hollywood scriptwriting for the nascent film industry, which popularised the wearing of fur in ever-more extravagant quantities.