A couple of months ago I inherited some items that had once belonged to my mother. Most of these boxes invoked poignant joy. But one produced a moral dilemma.
I found a collection of fur garments, wrapped in plastic, that my mother had inherited from her mother. This included a fabulous floor-length mink coat of the sort that heiresses once commonly wore around New York or Geneva, and wealthy women still sport in Moscow or Davos.
Should I wear that coat? Toss it away? Just sell it on eBay? Twenty years ago my answer would have been clear: I would have conducted a ritual burning of the mink while enveloped in a smug glow of political correctness. I started my adult life as a tie-dye-wearing anthropology student and back then the animal rights movement was running such a slick anti-fur campaign that mink seemed taboo to westerners of my age. Who can forget those ghastly posters of slaughtered seals? Or the shots of fur-clad ladies being doused in red paint in the streets by angry protesters?
In those days, sporting fur in public seemed like an act of deliberate provocation — even before you factored in the issues of privilege and wealth. Indeed, fur was so controversial that I had forgotten my mother even had a mink coat because she barely wore it.
But today, my attitudes to fur — like those of many western consumers — have become less black and white. Or sable and cream, perhaps. That is partly due to experience: having lived in Russia I now realise that fur is extraordinarily effective at combating extreme cold. But it is also because I have become increasingly aware of the capricious nature of political campaigns and concepts of political correctness, particularly in an era of social media. The more I think about it, the odder it seems that someone should throw a paintball at a fur coat but still wear leather, eat factory-farmed meat or buy most types of fast fashion, given what is happening in some workshops.
In any case, a moral analysis of fur has become more complicated. Fur has been associated with some shamefully cruel practices in the past. But it is not always associated with animal cruelty: these days designers in places such as Vermont are making fur coats out of road kill, and parts of the industry are becoming better regulated.
The social ecosystem of fur is also more complex than it might seem. When fur prices tumbled in the 1980s, due to the anti-fur campaign, the biggest victims were not the rich women whose coats were doused in red paint — but indigenous groups, in places such as Canada, who had relied on the fur trade for their living.
But the other complicating factor is technology. In the past couple of decades it has become easy to produce a fake fur coat. Sometimes these are fashioned to look as artificial as possible (apparently, a hot item this winter is a peppermint-green fake fur). But often, such items look identical to my mink. Either way, the trend has lessened the stigma around fur, making it more widely worn. Indeed, since 1995, prices have risen.
In some ways this is deeply ironic. In centuries past fur was valuable because it seemed so exclusive and natural. Now its acceptability and price are rising because of plentiful fakes. If nothing else, this should remind us all of just how malleable many of our symbols can be, and how arbitrary our concepts of “value”. We are all trapped by deeply embedded cultural rules we inherit from our surroundings, often without much thought.
I am a case in point. For many weeks that mink sat untouched in my closet in New York while I uneasily pondered what to do. Then my own daughters stumbled on the bags and it suddenly occurred to me that wearing that coat, whatever its origins, could be an ecologically positive act. Burning the coat would not bring dead animals back to life. But wearing it would at least be recycling it.
So when the temperature plunged I finally swathed myself in the sensual layers of mink. Part of me still feels a touch uneasy sporting it in the street. But I comfort myself with the fact that, as one of my daughters acerbically pointed out, nobody knows if it is real. Perhaps that would have made my grandmother spin in her grave. I prefer to chuckle at the irony — and hope that the next generation of fur coats can be produced in the most humane way possible.
Illustration by Shonagh Rae
Letter in response to this column: