For a short time during the mid-1920s, wearing long, bulky coats of raccoon fur was a fad among young American men and some young women, especially those attending colleges and universities. Distinctive and flamboyant, the gray and black raccoon fur coat fit perfectly with the style of the Roaring Twenties (a period of time following World War I [1914–18] when people were experiencing newfound freedoms and a sense of rebellion), when people dressed in flashy and extravagant fashions.
Animal fur, with its warm insulation, had long been a popular winter coat material, and raccoon was one of the least expensive types of fur. Raccoon coats became especially popular in the 1920s when driving became one of the most popular activities for those wealthy enough to own Henry Ford's Model T automobile. Full-length raccoon fur coats were perfect for winter driving because cars were mostly open in the 1920s and driving could be very cold in the winter. The privileged few who could afford a car also wore raccoon coats, and subsequently made raccoon coats a symbol of wealth.
It wasn't long before college students joined in the raccoon coat fad. Eventually the coats would be closely identified with students, especially students at the so-called Ivy League colleges and universities, which were Brown, Columbia, Cornell, Dartmouth, Harvard, University of Pennsylvania, Princeton, and Yale. Popularized by such celebrities as radio star Rudy Vallee (1901–1986), football hero Red Grange (1903–1991), and the famous college football players from Notre Dame nicknamed the "Four Horsemen," young people began wearing raccoon coats to football games and college parties. Modern young men who listened to jazz music, used modern slang, and wore raccoon coats with straw hats called boaters and white spats (a cloth or leather covering) on their shoes, were nicknamed "collegiates" or "sheiks."
Raccoon coats were not only popular among wealthy young university men. Women, enjoying a new fashion freedom in the 1920s, also liked to wear the warm, dashing coats, and for young African Americans raccoon coats were the height of style. James Van Der Zee (1887–1983), a well-known African American artist, caught much of the spirit of the decade in a painting of a fashionable young black man and woman standing by their car, titled Couple in Raccoon Coats.
Raccoon coats are considered, along with flappers, the Charleston dance, and the Model T Ford, to be a symbol of the short-lived fads of the 1920s. The coats were heavy and bulky, and by the end of the decade they had been replaced by lighter weight camel's hair coats. The raccoon coat did have a brief revival during the late 1950s, when fashionable women once again sought vintage, or antique, 1920s coats.
Schoeffler, O. E., and William Gale. Esquire's Encyclopedia of 20th Century Men's Fashions. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1973.