When the cold season comes, a particular material in fashion regenerates controversy. This hairy, fun, and warm material that has caused explosions of flour on the Fashion Week entrance and serious debates among environmentalists is a relevant topic in Political Fashion. Let’s talk about fur.
Historically, fur was one of the first materials we as humans used to make clothes. After all, our ancestors didn't have the technology to make plant-based clothes or recycle textile waste, so they haunted animals to eat their meat and wear their skin out of survival instincts. But it wasn't just the warmth they were seeking in this material; some ancestors believed that by wearing the skin of an animal, they would be able to acquire some of the qualities of this animal. For instance, they would hunt bears to wear their skin for a desire to be stronger; they would hunt cheetahs wishing they could be as fast as this fascinating animal. They believed these qualities would make them survive throughout their journey, looking for a place to stay warm where food was sufficient. (ThiBault, 2015).
Time passed, and the perception around fur changed. People stopped wearing fur, seeking to acquire the skills of an animal. Instead, they were looking for social status. As the process of hunting animals and treating fur to make clothes was particularly difficult before the Industrial Revolution, the prices of fur were high, so they were associated with wealth and power. The need to show this superiority was such that the working class was not allowed to wear the finest furs. They were allowed to wear certain furs from red foxes, otters, and small rodents, but it was the texture and color of the fur of cheetahs, chinchillas, and silver foxes that the consumers desired the most. Consequently, these were more expensive and exclusive.
Fur as a symbol of social status prevailed in the 20th century, where fashion publications started to shape on a bigger scale the understanding of fashion with very concise marketing strategies. As an example, in a publication of Vogue from 1929 about fur, the first lines stated:
Go without jewels, pocket money, or everyday clothes, but never try to scrimp on fur. The fur you wear will reveal to everyone the kind of woman you are and the kind of life you lead.
So now the questions are: what is faux-fur, and why did we start wearing it?
The pressure on people to wear fur to "fit" in society was one of the main factors that speeded up the process to create fake fur, a material that attempted to look like real fur and made people feel wealthy and powerful. Faux fur or fake fur was first introduced in 1929, using the hair of alpacas, but it was until the 1940's that technology made it possible to create fake fur out of polymers, synthetic materials that could be manipulated easily to create different textures, weights, and patterns. (How Products Are Made).
Faux fur became popular because of the need of consumers to feel wealthy, belonged, and appreciated due to the pressure of media, marketing, and the upper class. Still, real fur was highly popular, and those who could afford it prioritized the purchase, whether that was a scarf, a beanie, or a modest jacket with real fur limited as a trim around the sleeves.
World wars happened, trends changed, people changed, and our perception of clothes did too.
The awareness of animal cruelty has raised, and so our need to question the materials that we are wearing for fashion. In recent years, high fashion names like Versace, Prada, Gucci, and Michael Kors, became fur-free, so none of their products contain fur that comes from animals, and instead, they started using faux-fur.
As the demand for faux fur increased with fast fashion and high fashion designers transitioning from real fur to faux fur, the variety of faux fur is now immense. You can now find it in different colors, qualities, weights, price points, and even prints.
Fur is Political Fashion
The controversy around faux fur starts when organizations and designers claim that faux fur is sustainable as it doesn't harm animals. However, the production of faux fur does harm animals, but this harm is not as immediate and obvious as the harm from real fur that was published and went viral on websites of Animal Welfare Organizations and activist portals.
Today, most faux fur is made from acrylic polymers which are mainly derived from petroleum and limestone. The material can be treated, dyed, extruded, and sewn to look in many different ways to accommodate the trends and needs of the customers, but essentially when we are wearing faux fur, we are wearing plastic.
So when designers and environmentalists claim that faux fur is sustainable, this is not necessarily true. Here in Political Fashion, we've talked about the devastating environmental impacts of polyester in the environment, and the impact of faux fur is not so different from this synthetic fiber as both materials are a type of plastic.
According to the Ocean Conservancy, plastic has been found inside 60% of seabirds and 100% of sea turtle species. A big part of this plastic pollution comes from the food industry and packaging. Yet, a significant amount of it comes from fashion waste, which is polyester, faux fur, and other synthetic materials used in fashion as vinyl or the so-called "vegan leather" used in fast fashion companies that also happens to be a type of plastic. The thing is, real fur stands for animal cruelty and harm to endangered species, and faux fur stands for synthetic materials that contribute to plastic pollution, harming our soil, our air, and our water. Which makes us wonder,
What is the most sustainable way of wearing fur?
The most sustainable way of wearing fur is to buy it only if you need it and to take good care of your fur piece to make it last as much as possible. Good quality fur will always be better than fast fashion fur. A cheap fur coat might look decent on the outside, but the material starts to come out, and the texture is particularly stiff. Their linings tend to be made of the cheapest polyester fabrics (more plastic!). If you decide to buy a fur coat, because your surroundings and your lifestyle require you to do so, make sure you select a color or pattern that you feel comfortable wearing multiple times so that you have fun styling with a fur coat for multiple occasions. We are so in love with the patterns and textures found in nature, that you’ll notice there is faux fur with a texture similar to the fur of a silver fox, a chinchilla, or any other animal. By law, the clothes sold in the US most show in the label what are the garments made of, so don’t be shy when looking for this information in the coats you try on. Loving and respecting your clothes with care and responsibility is one of the best sustainable practices.
Does that mean that all faux fur is bad for the environment?
Everything we take from mother nature will have an impact on it in some way. However, some impacts are smaller than others. For instance, Stella McCartney named her faux fur "fur-free fur." It is a material developed by KOBA that contains recycled polyester with a blend of a corn-based byproduct that can be recycled at the end of the coat's life (Glamour). This helps to transition to a circular fashion system that doesn't generate more waste. Stella McCartney's Fur Free Fur requires 30% less energy and produces 63% less greenhouse gases in comparison to synthetic faux fur.
Tiziano Guardini is another great designer who challenged himself to create sustainable faux fur. He plays with different plant-based materials, including hemp, pine needles, or even old pieces of denim, to create the texture of fur. This gives his catalog a wide diversity of colors and types of textures while encouraging other designers to be creative in different ways to create fur.
But what if I already own a real fur coat?
Thirty years ago, there wasn't enough information about the cruel process of making real fur, so it was quite normal for people to own and inherit pieces made of chinchillas, beavers, dogs, raccoons, and other animals. In today's world, it is no longer acceptable for companies to produce clothing and accessories through this cruel process. But, what if a family member inherited you a real fur piece? The most sustainable thing to do is to give all of your clothes a longer life span. Unfortunately, you cannot bring back to life the animals that were killed to make that piece you own, so you can wear it understanding that by wearing it you are simply leveraging the fashion pieces you have and reducing overconsumption.
If you don't feel comfortable wearing this piece, there are many thrift stores, donation centers, and shelters, where this piece, or even the material solely, will be significantly helpful to keep someone warm. Don't blame yourself for owning a real fur piece if you didn't know about the making process. You didn't know better!
Our clothes change because our mindset, and our beliefs change. In the third decade of the 21st century, we are aware of the environmental impact of our clothes. We understand that there are consequences to our everyday life decisions and that we, as informed consumers, have the power to do wonderful things, dress spectacularly and make smart, informed shopping decisions.
Fur is political fashion because there are mixed opinions around it, and it will be hard to get everyone on the same page. It is not easy to get rid of the habit of wearing a material that we have been wearing for thousands of years! But when we let go of habits that are no longer beneficial to our life and our planet, there's an opportunity to innovate. We challenge ourselves to think of how to do things differently, and that's when the most exciting things happen in fashion and in politics. We are used to wearing furry textures because winters are getting colder, and the cozy feeling of being inside a hairy coat is particularly pleasing. Stella McCartney proposes fur-free fur, Guardini is making hemp fur. This is just the beginning of a new and exciting chapter in fashion where fur is sustainable, and the clothes keep getting more and more spectacular.