The most ancient humans created the garments they wore from materials that were around them, and it is likely that animal furs were one of the earliest materials used in the making of clothes. Fur clothing is not only soft, warm, and durable, but has often been a sign of wealth and rank in society. During the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries it became fashionable for both men and women to wear fur and fur trimmed coats, hats, dresses, and other accessories. Even the top hat, one of the most commonly worn items of the 1800s, could be made from beaver fur. This popularity continued until the 1960s, when some people began to protest the deaths of animals for clothing. They stopped wearing it themselves and protested against those who did.
During the Middle Ages (c. 500–c. 1500) fur was widely used in Europe as a luxurious trim worn by noblemen on cloaks, hats, and tunics to show their wealth and importance. Men also wore fur coats, almost always with the fur on the inside, as a soft, warm lining. Fur was so popular that the buying and selling of furs became a major part of European economies, and a major reason behind the exploration of the New World. In the late eighteenth-century United States, men like John Jacob Astor became millionaires in the fur trade, shipping thousands of beaver furs to Europe to be pressed into thick, durable felt for hats.
During the late 1800s, France, the capital of the Western fashion world, developed a friendly alliance with Russia. The Tsar, or ruler, of Russia visited Paris, to the delight of cheering crowds, and all over Europe people took an interest in Russian styles, especially in the wearing of fur. Hats, scarves, and muffs were made of fur. Cloth coats and dresses were trimmed with fur collars, cuffs, and bands around the hem. Men wore ankle-length coats made of buffalo and beaver, and women wore coats made of Russian sable and Hudson Bay seal. The seal coat was the first fur coat to be worn with the fur on the outside to show off its beauty and texture. This trend, started in 1840, spread throughout Europe and by the mid-nineteenth century had become customary throughout the Western world. As fur became something to display on the outside of garments, sometimes two different types of fur were used so that the different furs provided a contrast. Even whole small animals, such as foxes, were used, including the head and feet, to make a fur wrap. A single whole animal skin, called a stole, could be worn around the shoulders or many whole animals could be sewn together to make a large wrap.
During the early part of the twentieth century, the manufacture of the automobile gave fur clothing another boost. Cars were open and driving could be quite cold and messy. Many men and women wore long coats made of sturdy fur such as raccoon, lynx, or sheepskin to protect them on windy drives.
The French House of Paquin, founded in late 1891, was an important designer of fur fashions. Madame Isidore Paquin not only designed many fur and fur-trimmed garments, but also developed a method of treating furs to make them softer and more comfortable. Some fashion experts said that every well-dressed woman of the early 1900s had a fur-trimmed Paquin coat.
Even during the 1800s, many people protested that wearing fur was cruel to animals and even barbaric. By the 1960s the number of people who felt this way had grown. In addition, fabric manufacturers had developed attractive "fake" furs that imitated the look, warmth, and softness of fur. During the late 1900s and early 2000s, many people chose to wear imitation fur instead of real fur.
Crawford, M.D.C. The Ways of Fashion. New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1941.
Municchi, Anna. Ladies in Furs, 1900–1940. Hollywood, CA: Costume and Fashion Press, 1996.