The History of Faux Fur

For more than 100 years, the fine line between finks and minks has been blurred

A stack of faux fur "pelts." (Flickr user ian beaty)
smithsonian.com

"This article is not for you if you are feeling economical or momentarily poor."

So reads the first line of a 1929 Vogue feature, boldly titled "The Fur Story of 1929." Go without jewels, pocket money, or every-day clothes, Vogue advises, but never try to scrimp on fur. For the fur you wear will reveal to everyone "the kind of woman you are and the kind of life you lead."

It's enough to make you sweat in your scrappy Uniqlo hoodie 86 years in the future. Today's fashion marketers are less candid, but their strategy for marketing luxury goods is the same. Rare materials, the argument goes, elevate your self-worth, and investing in them fuels personal and even spiritual development. 

Fur is no longer the status symbol it used to be, and while some credit can be given to public awareness campaigns orchestrated by animal rights groups, it's largely thanks to the proliferation of fake furs that began to hit the market more than a century ago. In the 1910s, reports of imitation Astrakhan—a velvety, short-haired pelt made of a newborn or unborn lamb—began popping up in American newspapers. The "high prices for real furs and the excellence of textile furs contribute to make the large manufacturers of women's garments… more active than before," remarked one designer who went on to create many of the plush faux leopards of the 1950s.

Early on, fake fur was made out of pile fabric, a technique of looping yarn that designers used to make textiles including corduroy and velvet. From 1919 to 1928, the United States government imposed a 10 percent tax on real fur as part of wartime measures, leading to a boon for pile manufacturers. Some had so many orders they shut down temporarily. That year, the New York Times ran a humor article titled "Man Invents Quadruped Not At All Like The Real One." It detailed the story of a fake fur manufacturer who, having accidentally created a coat based on an imaginary animal, the "Wumpus," launched a national advertising campaign to teach the public about the "origins" of the creature.

“Whenever a fur becomes fashionable," one expert told the Times in 1924, "the trade hunts for a substitute, because the girl in Sixth Avenue wants to look like the fashionable woman on Fifth, and we must help her find her way." As technology improved, manufacturers were able to create fur effects in silk—resembling leopard, gazelle, and mole—and eventually, synthetic pile fabrics like Orlon and Dynel, created in 1948 and 1950, respectively. By 1957, fake furriers were trying their hands at replicating mink, beaver, chinchilla, seal, raccoon, ermine, pony, and giraffe, some with more success than others. At best, one could hope to convince the eye, if not the touch.

By then, fake fur was more than just a cheap alternative. "'Frankly fake' furs not only imitate the animal kingdom but poke fun at it," one fashion writer observed. Magazines featured spreads with bright, plush fabrics, no longer resembling real animals. Still, when it came to luxury, genuine fur—puffy fox stoles, floor-length minks—reigned, in Hollywood and thus everywhere else. Like jewelry, women rarely bought their own furs, adding to the material's role as a marker of status.

Conservationists began to speak out against the use of certain real animals for fur—particularly, big cats —in the mid-'60s. In 1968, members of the Audubon Society picketed in front of luxury fashion store Saks Fifth Avenue. At the time, they claimed not to take issue with the fur industry as a whole, simply the use of endangered animals. But the attacks mounted over the next few years as activists broadened their missions to include the overall well-being of animals and not simply their conservation in the wild.

The faux-fur industry saw an opportunity. In the early '70s, E.F. Timme & Son, the NY-based manufacturer of "Timme-Tation" fake furs, launched an ad campaign attacking the fur industry. Doris Day, Mary Tyler Moore, Angie Dickenson, Jayne Meadows, and Amanda Blake gave quotes for one 1971 ad in New York magazine. "Killing an animal to make a coat is a sin," Day said. "A woman gains status when she refuses to see anything killed to be put on her back. Then she's truly beautiful…"

It was the first strike of a long war between animal-rights activists and furriers that used celebrities as ammunition. In an iconic 1994 campaign, PETA featured models Naomi Campbell and Cindy Crawford posing nude, promoting the slogan "I'd rather be naked than wear fur." Brands like Calvin Klein declared they would no longer use the fabric. "Is there a future for fur?" Suzy Menkes asked that year in Vogue. "Young girls don't dream of a fur coat as an image of luxury," said German fashion designer Karl Lagerfeld. "That kind of glamour-girl dream relates to their mothers and aunts." 

Fake fur brands continued to capitalize on the zeitgeist. Coats were sold pinned with political badges, and garments were donated to fashion shows sponsored on by animal rights organizations. If fur was historically fashion's loudest signifier of identity and status, fake fur began to rival it, communicating its wearer's progressive political beliefs. While today some vegans oppose fur of any kind, on the grounds that even fakes popularize the aesthetic, animal rights groups generally back fakes.

Why fur is so socially charged? It's loud and easy to spot, for one. These days, though, the messages once communicated by fake or realness have been diluted by the fact that it's so difficult to tell the difference. Global sales of real fur are on the rise, but fakes are trending, too: Look at runways and you'll see lots of Teddy-bear-esque styles, at department-store brands like Coach as well as up-and-coming labels like Shrimps. (Last year, Isa Arfen actually made a sky-blue coat from the fabric used in Steiff teddy bears.) When everything looks like it could be on the set of Sesame Street, it's difficult to tell what's made of what, and no one seems to be very worried. 

Fur has always been a tactile fabric. The fact that most of what we see of fashion is now communicated by image rather than touch—on blogs as well as social media channels—likely plays a role in the look of new furs, real and fake. If few except those who buy them touch them, there's less of a point in obsessing over the direction of the follicle up-close. Does your fur still reveal "the kind of woman you are"? Only on Instagram. The "Wumpus" coat would have a better chance if it were around today.

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