As I begin to learn more specifics on the vintage styles which we know and love, I’m often found in a conundrum of educational pursuits.
Today’s post is an example: One of the season’s hottest modern trends is that of fur. We saw it all over the runways in a variety of styles, from Rachel Zoe vests to full-on fur coats, gloves, earmuffs, scarfs and everything in between.
I consider myself nothing more or less than an animal of this earth. And as an animal, I feel it’s very important to respect the rights of all other brother & sister animals.
That’s why I want to start today’s post — which is an exploration and education on identifying 5 of the most common vintage furs used to create warm outerwear garments — with the declaration that I will never buy new fur or leather products.
However, I will also declare that I will buy vintage fur or leather products as a sustainable option to use the resources which are pre-existing. As another alternative, I can also decide NOT to wear these garments to perpetuate the popularity of new production of fur & leather goods by choosing to utilize them in various ways as outlined in this blog post I wrote last January on How to Recycle Vintage Fur.
I believe that we each have a right to our own opinions, no matter the subject matter. I respect anyone’s similar or differing opinion, and welcome further suggestions on how best to tackle this ethical fashion conundrum in the comments.
So, vintage lovers! For the sake of today’s post, I hope that you leave with a greater understanding of vintage fur as a whole, which will fuel your OWN opinions and decisions on how to engage with these styles and trends this winter.
Keep reading after the jump to learn how to identify vintage mink, fox, rabbit, beaver & raccoon — and to understand just how the fur industry has influenced fashion yesterday through today.
Whether you’re a vintage fur wearer or not, I hope that today’s post provides further insight into how to identify fashion furs and some knowledge on why different furs were popular at certain points in our fashion history.
What I love most about vintage fashion is the glimpse into our society’s history it offers. While the times they may be changing — and less and less “new fur” is encouraged to be made and bought — the vintage fur industry remains, and it’s with the best knowledge that we can make the right style decision for us.
Thanks to everyone for reading today’s post and hopefully, providing their own vintage fur knowledge in the comments below!
WINTER OUTERWEAR FUR TREND
Before launching into identifying vintage furs of mink, fox, rabbit, beaver and raccoon 101, I must point out that fur is a big trend for winter 2011-2012. The runways set the stage for trends and mainstream ready-to-wear designers take note.
The evidence of this cold weather season’s fur trend is apparent on the cover of the Bloomingdale’s catalog cover above, which I received in my mailbox just yesterday.
BASIC FUR TERMINOLOGY
When we speak of fur, four key words are used to describe how the fur piece is constructed.
UNDERCOAT: This is where you find the denser/thicker hair near the skin of the animal
GUARD HAIRS: These are the shinier, more delicate hairs which lay over the undercoat. They are more aesthetically pleasing while the undercoat is the practical warmth layer.
PILE: The “pile” is used to describe the direction of the hair growth, i.e. “the pile grows inward from the tail or outward from the top of the belly to the bottom of the torso.”
PELT: The literal skin of the animal, and the phrase used to describe the number of animals needed to create one fur garment. “This fur coat required 10 pelts of a fox,” for example.
THE ANIMAL: Wild or ranched mink, a type of weasel which can swim at free will (referred to as “semi aquatic”) and is most commonly found in North America and countries of Siberia, China and Japan.
HOW TO IDENTIFY: Mink fur is flat and short and because the animal itself is tiny (imagine no larger than a common squirrel), the pelts are long and narrow when construed together to form the garment. The look of a mink piece is described as being almost “shiny and wet.” This makes sense since the animal can swim, so it’s almost as if the hair is like aquatic skin.
Fur is usually very light but still thick, and according to the Vintage Fashion Guild, dark mink is the most recognizable (see picture of wild mink above). Ranched mink are not born with dark fur coloring, so their fur is often dyed to different shades of browns and even white or a “silver blue” shade.
POPULAR VINTAGE STYLES: The definitive “mink coat.” While other animal fur is used for cold weather protective outer garments, the mink style is what I associate with Hollywood glamor and luxury.
My grandmother passed down her mink stole to me (worn below). The trend of mink began in the 20th century after mink was trapped for some time in large quantities. Beaver had been more popular previously, as you’ll learn why reading how to identify vintage beaver fur below.
It makes financial sense why mink is associated with such glitz & glam: Because the mink animal is so small, it requires dozens of them to make a coat or a stole. Thus the garment itself is more expensive than the same style made with a larger animal with larger pelts, like a fox.
Plus, mink fur is short and glossy, making mink the go-to animal for high-fashion pieces looking to radiate that luxurious shine.
VINTAGE MINK STOLE
THE ANIMAL: There are 12 species of what we know as the “fox,” the most recognizable of such being the red fox (shown above) or gray fox, which are the indigenous species of fox in North America.
The US, Canada and Finland are the world’s leaders in production of fox fur, or essentially the creation of the “pelts” needed to make the garments as a whole.
POPULAR VINTAGE STYLES: Fox pelts complete with head and feet (see image below) were popular in the ’30s – ’50s.
Special note: While it is surely the creepiest, the easiest way to identify a type of fur is to take note of whether the garment contains the head or tail of its animal.
Mink stoles of the ’30s-’50s eras (on Etsy, seen sold often from the ’50s) were also often designed with heads and tails still intact, which I assume became trendy because it was much easier to use the entire animal versus just looping together smaller pelts.
I’d love to know why using animal heads/tails to design a fur garment because less popular after the ’50s. To my knowledge, PETA was founded as an organization in 1980, so there is less chance that this organization had influence of fur trends & styles prior to that.
I also noticed — along with rabbit & beaver — that fox fur is a popular choice for hats, shown in the picture farther above. The hat above is fur from a white fox. I believe that because there are so many “natural color choices” of foxes, that dying fox fur is not as popular as dying mink fur.
HOW TO IDENTIFY: When you’re examining a piece sans head or feet, identifying whether the fur is fox or not depends mostly on touch.
The fur is much longer in comparison to other woodland creatures. It’s a soft fur that comes in a variety of colors depending on the type of fox species: beige, blue, brown, red, silver or white.
Wild red and gray fox are the least expensive of fur because they are indigenous to North America, so production remains local instead of outsourced thereby dropping the overall average cost a garment.
THE ANIMAL: The rabbit, technically a “rodent” animal that is quite literally found all over the world in a variety of species, size, color and personality.
POPULAR VINTAGE STYLES: Rabbits are so plentiful and common that many rabbit pieces are less expensive than say, a mink or a beaver piece.
According to the Vintage Fashion Guild, rabbit furs were more often dyed prior to the 1970s. Because rabbits are one of the least expensive fur garments, the trend was to dye the rabbit fur to resemble a more expensive creature. Perhaps this is why with vintage furs, we so often see a rabbit piece dyed dark brown as if it were mink, beaver or fox.
HOW TO IDENTIFY: When petting a garment made from rabbit, it should feel like you are petting a domestic cat. Because the coloring of a rabbit garment could be just about anything — from white to black and any shade in between, thanks to popularity of dying rabbit fur — it’s most important to take note of the garment’s longer, denser hairs that are silky soft. You’ll want to rub the garment on your face, much like a cat would rub it’s body on you when wanting to be stroked!
Beginning in the 1970s — when a love and acceptance of all things “natural” began thanks to the peace, love & flower power generation — the natural colors of rabbit fur were embraced as a trend and less dying occurred.
Also, the demand for “higher quality fur” had lessened. Mink was the luxurious go-to fur of its day, so rabbit fur was dyed previously to the ’70s to resemble mink fur.
The rabbit vest you see pictured above is from the ’70s and not dyed. This grey-white coloring is very unique to the common species of North American rabbit, so it’s easier to identify more modern rabbit pieces based on color alone.
Angora is another style of rabbit fur with recent popularity made from the sheared fur of the angora species of rabbit, shown below.
We’ve all loved our “cashmere” sweaters, which are soft to the touch and made from wool. Angora is a similar touch and feel to cashmere, but you’ll know it’s angora because you’ll notice small threads of fur emerging from the garment material that can almost be “brushed” like fluffy, not-thick hair.
ANGORA RABBIT HAIR VINTAGE SWEATER
THE ANIMAL: There are two distinct types of beaver: The Eurasian beaver (Europe) and the North American beaver (Canada/US/Northern Mexico).
The Eurasian beaver was literally hunted into extinction in Europe in the 17th century. The rodent creature is just recently being introduced back into its indigenous European countries.
As for North America, the same population-decline of the beaver occurred because beaver trapping became so popular in the 1600s to mid 1800s. It literally became an industry of supply & demand, and major beaver trapping companies were born out of the trend to produce all-things-outerwear from this once plentiful creature. When the beaver was hunted into practical extinction in 17th century Europe, the French & British traveled to North America to set up fur trade there.
POPULAR VINTAGE STYLES: When beaver was such a sought after animal in the 1600s – 1800s, it was common for aristocrats to wear beaver “wool felt” hats. While the styles of hats changed over the course of 200 years, the tradition remained the same: Men were to wear a hat no matter the social situation — Always!
1920s BEAVER FUR FELT HAT
Flash forward to the 20th century vintage pieces, and beaver appears to have been a more popular style for outerwear accessories than anything else. Doing a quick Etsy search of “beaver fur” still results in beaver coats, but also beaver earmuffs (see above), scarves and yes … the popular beaver hat!
(BRIEF) BEAVER TRADING HISTORY: Beyond just the socially popular beaver felt hat, beaver was commonly made to produce practical tools of warmth and stable structure, like blankets, bags and coats.
In 16th to 17th century North America, Beaver pelts were also used as a currency value, as in “this knife is worth 2 beaver pelts.” Beaver belts were traded by Native American Indians and once they arrived to set their own fur trade industry, the European white man used pelts as an option of currency too.
Because beavers were literally trapped into extinction in Europe due to the fact that they were the #1 choice for the day’s hat styles, explorers to North America — including even Lewis & Clark! — sought new land there because they also desired to find new options to increase the availability of fur.
And boy, did Beaver they find! That’s why the “beaver fur wars” of the mid 1600s were so important in territorial history: The Iroquois Indians wanted to maintain rights to land where Beavers lived. But of course, the newly arrived French wanted these lands too for their own financial gain.
The result? A bloody war over the desire to simply produce and trade Beaver pelts.
The history of the beaver trade doesn’t stop in the 1600s. The industry flourished until the 1840s, when hat styles began to change and a demand for beaver lessened.
Also, much like was experienced in Europe, beaver were being slowly trapped into a dwindling population. I used this Economic History of the Fur Trade as a resource for this (brief) round up, and in the article it explains that history has no true “population” to speak of for beavers prior to present day. But it’s assumed that as the price of Beaver pelts decreased, more and more were being trapped to make up for this lost income. Thus, more beavers were removed from their natural habitats.
HOW TO IDENTIFY: Beaver was so sought after as early as the 1600s because it quite literally is the sturdiest, warmest and most hard-wearing of all fur on this list. It makes sense that the beaver doesn’t hibernate: Its fur is thick and warm enough that it can survive literally living in freezing-cold water through the course of the winter.
When examining a fur garment, note how dense the warm the fur feels. You can see in the picture of beaver earmuffs above that the fur almost looks like a bear’s cold-bearing fur.
Beaver garments have less tendency to fall apart or shed. According to the Economic History of the Fur Trade, “Wool felt was used for over two centuries to make high-fashion hats. Felt is stronger than a woven material. It will not tear or unravel in a straight line; it is more resistant to water, and it will hold its shape even if it gets wet. These characteristics made felt the prime material for hatters especially when fashion called for hats with large brims. The highest quality hats would be made fully from beaver wool, whereas lower quality hats included inferior wool, such as rabbit.”
While I can’t speak to it from experience, I would imagine that beaver garments may be easiest to find antique (100+ years old) just because they are simply that long lasting.
THE ANIMAL: The raccoon is a nocturnal creature who lives throughout all of North America. In desert areas — think the American southwest — these night-loving creatures hang more around garbage cans of your home because there are less woodlands to make their home. You can’t mistake a raccoon for another creature thanks to its ringed tail and the black mask across its face.
And if you see a raccoon out during the day, run the other way! The animal is most likely infected with rabbis and a potential harm to humans.
POPULAR VINTAGE STYLES: Raccoon is made up of approximately 90% undercoat — which remember in the terminology above, is the fur which insulates the animal and is therefore the densest & warmest.
According to hunting stats kept on record, raccoon trapping for outdoor garment use reached an all time high in the ’70s when 5.2 million raccoons were caught in the hunting season of 1976-1977.
The reason for such hunting popularity of the ‘coon is most likely due to the fact that other animals used for warm outerwear — (cough cough) beaver — were still struggling to regain population after being over hunted for literally hundreds of years.
Raccoon was also popular in the ’20s & ’30s before the trend of “long haired fur” became less popular in the ’40s-’50s when the short haired mink reigned supreme & most stylish.
An interesting vintage trend to note is that when Walt Disney released the movie “Davy Crockett: King of the Wild Frontier” in the ’50s that raccoon hats — complete with tails and all — became popular.
HOW TO IDENTIFY: Raccoon fur is a lot like fox fur — longer and soft to the touch — but the coloring gives it a distinct difference from that of fox.
Based on my research raccoon fur was not a commonly dyed fur, so you’ll also know it’s raccoon because its body is a silver-gray coloring, while the tail has a brown base that’s easily identified thanks to black tiger-esque stripes.
The Davy Crockett ‘coon hat — while popular in the ’50s — was sold mostly using faux raccoon fur. I guess this was because the hat was mostly popular with young boys who may not have had the income to buy a bonafide coonskin hat.
VINTAGE COONSKIN HAT