Expedition: Fashion from the Extreme

September 15, 2017 – January 6, 2018

Professor Jonathan FaiersJonathan Faiers is Professor of Fashion Thinking at Winchester School of Art, University of Southampton. U.K. Originally studying fashion design at Central St. Martins, Jonathan worked as a theatre designer and a retail consultant for the Victoria & Albert Museum, as well as exhibiting his video work internationally before embarking on his career as a writer and academic, focussing on the interface between fashion and popular culture. Jonathan’s publications include Tartan, Dressing Dangerously: Dysfunctional Fashion in Film, and essays for Alexander McQueen and London Couture 1923-75. He contributed the essay “Fur: The Final Frontier” to the book, Expedition: Fashion from the Extreme.

Why write about fur and why now?
These are questions I have had to ponder since working on my latest book provisionally titled Fur: A Controversial History (Yale 2020).

A simple answer would be that there is no book in print that tells the complex history of our relationship with fur, a history I was honoured to consider for the book accompanying the remarkable show Expedition: Fashion from the Extreme.

In spite of increasing pressure from anti-fur lobbies (last month’s London Fashion Week attracted unprecedented organised protests), a considerable number of designers are using fur in their collections. Opposing arguments put forward by the fur industry argue that fur is a natural sustainable material offering a real alternative to fast fashion, while some fake fur’s non-degradability and environmentally polluting manufacturing processes have added yet another side to the argument.

Whatever one’s position on wearing fur, its controversial nature has meant that reasoned discussion of its historical, economic, and cultural importance is rare, and it is this lack of serious research that really attracted me to the subject.

For example, it is impossible to research the history, economic development, and socio-cultural transformation of North America and Canada without addressing at least some aspects of the fur industry, and while the Hudson’s Bay Company’s history is well known, we might also consider John Jacob Astor’s millions made from fur, or how significant movie moguls such as Adolph Zukor (the founder of Paramount) invested furry fortunes in order to establish the emerging film industry.

One of the many aspects of fur that I have become especially interested in is its power to transform the wearer, whether that be psychologically, sexually or economically and how these transformations have been imagined in popular culture.

In the track ‘Wrapped In Black Mink’, from the 1978 album Giant by funk supremo Johnny Guitar Watson, the only lyrics, apart from Watson scatting and uttering ‘Come here guitar’, is the phrase ‘Wrapped in black mink’ – whispered some 29 times! This funk masterpiece, which was included in the impeccable vinyl set spun by DJ Dellores @vinylbunnies at the glamorous Expedition opening night party, distills in one simple phrase fur’s sensuous, sartorial power.

Johnny Guitar Watson surrounded by fur-clad fans for the cover of his 1977 album A Real Mother for Ya.

Johnny Guitar Watson surrounded by fur-clad fans for the cover of his 1977 album A Real Mother for Ya.

Sashaying down the runways of popular music, film, and advertising, a cast of remarkable characters wrapped in fur, if not necessarily mink, celebrate the irresistible combination of sex, success, and glamour.

From Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong measuring their love in the song ‘Gee Baby Ain’t I Good to You’ with the lines:

Bought you a fur coat for Christmas,
A diamond ring,
And a big Cadillac car, and everything.

Via the cast of mink-clad celebrities photographed by Richard Avedon and Bill King for the famous ‘What Becomes a Legend Most?’ Blackglama campaign,

Marlene Dietrich photographed by Richard Avedon for the ‘What becomes a Legend most?’ Blackglama campaign.

Marlene Dietrich photographed by Richard Avedon for the ‘What becomes a Legend most?’ Blackglama campaign.

onto Rihanna’s paparazzi-ready appearance at the A/W 2014 Comme des Garçons show in the young Korean designer Hyein Seo’s faux fur ‘fear’ stole.

Fur, whether fake or real, guarantees a head-turning entrance.

Rihanna at the Comme des Garçons A/W 2014 show in faux fur ‘fear’ stole.

Rihanna at the Comme des Garçons A/W 2014 show in faux fur ‘fear’ stole.

In film, fur is irresistible, immoral, and often deadly. Unlike a number of the fur garments featured in Expedition valued for their thermal properties, fur in film is worn for less practical reasons. As I suggested in my book Dressing Dangerously:

“In film the function of the fur coat as an item of clothing that will keep the wearer warm is consistently denied, or at least is relegated to an inconsequential level of significance in favour of its symbolic weight as a sign of ownership, status and especially sexuality.”

The fur coat, especially mink, in popular films from the 1930s to the 1960s can be understood as a reward from grateful husbands to long suffering wives for years of dutiful service – the ‘matrimonial mink’ as I have called it – versus the ‘extra-marital mink’, the fur coat as payment for sex, an illicit gift given to a host of glamorous fur-clad mistresses, gangster’s molls, and prostitutes. Think Elizabeth Taylor as the dazzling prostitute Gloria Wandrous in the 1960 film BUtterfield 8, whose coveted mink coat, originally stolen as compensation for the underpayment she receives for her services, becomes both the ‘uniform’ of her trade while also a symbol of the status she craves but never achieves.

Elizabeth Taylor in BUtterfield 8 dir. Daniel Mann 1960.

Elizabeth Taylor in BUtterfield 8 dir. Daniel Mann 1960.

This contradiction is never solved, and instead her mink becomes a cursed garment, causing harm and distress wherever it appears and to whoever wears it, ultimately leading to Gloria’s death at the wheel of her sports car.

Fur’s association with immorality is not just fictional, and as part of my research I have been looking into the historical regulation concerning the wearing of fur. The sumptuary laws that were passed in Europe during the Medieval and Renaissance periods detailed who could consume and wear luxury goods, in particular clothing, with fur being a primary target of these laws. Detailed regulations were drawn up as to which classes of society could wear which type of fur (generally the lower down the social ladder you were, the coarser the fur you were permitted to wear; finer imported furs such as sable were only available to the rich). The laws concerning the wearing of fur were especially harsh for those women who were thought to be of a lower moral standing and who dared to wear the fur of their ‘betters’, as this law from the 16th century suggests:

“…no such lewd woman shall be so daring as to be attired either by day or night in any kind of vesture trimmed with fur… “

Gloria Grahame in The Big Heat dir. Fritz Lang 1953.

Gloria Grahame in The Big Heat dir. Fritz Lang 1953.

Back in film, however, occasionally a ‘lewd’ dressed in mink, such as gangster’s moll Debbie Marsh (played by Gloria Grahame in Fritz Lang’s classic 1953 version of The Big Heat), makes a stand for the maligned, extra-martial mink wearer and fights back, leaving us with perhaps one of the most indelible images of the mink-clad avenger, smoking gun in hand, reminding us that wearing fur has never been for the faint-hearted!

Expedition: Fashion from the Extreme runs through January 6, 2018 at The Museum at FIT in NYC.

Norma Kamali On Creating the "Sleeping Bag" Coat arrow-right
Next post

arrow-left Conservation of Expedition Objects
Previous post