Adventures in Thrifting Adventures in Thrifting: Is It Okay To Buy Secondhand Fur? Laura Owen

One of my favorite books is I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith (it was also turned into a movie). The novel was published in 1948; nowadays, it would probably be considered a “young adult” book, but—as with any great “young adult” book—I think it can be read satisfactorily by anyone from age 12 to age 90.

The heroine is a young girl who is writing the novel herself in a notebook: it begins “I write this sitting in the kitchen sink.”

The story concerns a formerly well-off family who live in a crumbling old castle. In one scene, their wealthy Aunt Millicent dies, but instead of money she leaves the family only her collection of clothes. The heroine and her sister, Rose, have to go to London to collect them.

When they arrive, they are shown “a reminder that money was owing for the cold-storage of some furs.”

 ’But Aunt Millicent never had any furs,’ I said. ‘She thought they were cruel to animals.’ And I always thought she was right.

‘Well, those belonged to her,’ said the clerk, ‘and cruel or not, you’d better pop along and get them. Furs are worth money.’

They go to the fur storage department and find the furs:

            We shook them out and examined them. There were two very long coats, one of them black and shaggy and the other smoothish and brown…

‘But whatever animals were they?’ I gasped.

The white-haired woman inspected them gingerly. She said the brown coat was beaver…Rose tried the long shaggy black coat on. It reached to the ground.

‘You look like a bear,’ I said.

‘It is bear,’ said the white-haired woman. ‘Dear me, I think it must have been a coachman’s coat.’

‘There’s something in the pocket,’ said Rose.

She drew out of a piece of paper. On it was scrawled: Meet madam’s train 1:20. Milly Milly to dancing class at 3. The young ladies to the Grange at 6.

I worked it out: Aunt Millicent was father’s father’s youngest sister. These furs must have been her mother’s. That made them—‘Heavens!’ I cried. ‘These belonged to our great-grandmother.’

The coats are so old and out of fashion that they aren’t worth any money. The girls can’t afford to transport them, so they have to wear them back home on the train. The heroine reflects:

We had a compartment to ourselves on the train and, as it turned cold after sunset, I put on the beaver coat, fur side inwards. It felt wonderfully friendly. It was extraordinary, I had the most affectionate feelings for all those furs—no horror of them at all…I thought about it a lot, getting warmer and warmer in the beaver, and I decided that it was like the difference between the beautiful old Godsend graves and the news ones open to receive coffins (which I never can bear to look at); that time takes the ugliness and horror out of death and turns it into beauty.

The fur scene is interesting for two reasons: one, it ends up being an important plot point, as Rose gets embarrassed when she sees people that the family knows, and jumps off the train, in the process getting mistaken for a bear in her bear-skin coat.

And secondly, the other book that Dodie Smith is known today for writing is the children’s book The 101 and One Dalmatians. This was turned into the classic Disney animated movie, featuring one of the famous villainesses of all time: Cruella DeVil.

Cruella was then memorably brought to life by Glenn Close in the 1996 live-action version (and its sequel).

Animated Cruella DeVil was probably my first introduction to the issue of fur and its inherent cruelty. Ms. DeVil wants to skin the 101 dalmatian puppies for a fur coat: The frivolity of her desire and the desperate cuteness of the puppies are enough to make anyone anti-fur for life.

But…there’s also something, well, a little fabulous about Cruella DeVil, no? Her style is so weird that it tips over from fashionable to crazy and then into a camp-y level of awesome. She’s so intent on her desires, and so devious and wild-eyed in pursuit of her sartorial passions. Let’s face it: people still dress up as Cruella DeVil for Halloween. Nobody dresses up as the boring dalmatian puppy owners, whose names I cannot immediately recall.

Which gets right at the heart of my mixed feelings about fur. The idea of skinning an animal to wears its pelt seems barbarous and awful to me; we’re not longer cavepeople, who need animal skins to survive. Fur, in fact, is a rather old-fashioned luxury item; the whole point of it is that you don’t need it—a fur coat signals that you’re someone who can afford to spend a lot of money on skinning many, many, many different little rare animals to make an elaborate construction to show off your wealth. And along with 101 Dalmatians, I early in life saw a video about mink farming, which made me aware of the cruel practices that often go along with the fur industry.

But, as someone who loves Old Stuff, there’s a connection that older fur items have with the past that’s intriguing to me. After all, the heroine of I Capture the Castle—despite being as pro-animal as you can be—feels affectionate towards the old fur coats because they connect her to her family’s history. Plus, the death and destruction involved is long past.

So, is it okay to buy vintage or secondhand fur? After all, they’re just going to sit around and rot if no one buys them. Buying a secondhand fur doesn’t mean you support new ones being made or that you want to pump money into the fur industry.

My vintage store owner friend sells fur in her shop, and talked to me a little about it:

Lately I’ve really been into fur, which I never was before. I think that vintage fur is—sort of—not cruel. Same with snakeskin. What they do to the snakes is horrible. But vintage snakeskin I feel less guilty about. Because I think it is actually a really good look, very chic, but—

It’s weird. Growing up in the eighties, when fur had this whole reputation—people would throw blood on you for wearing fur. Of course I never even thought about fur, wearing a fur coat is something that never crossed my mind, it just seemed like this ridiculous thing. But now, thinking about an era where it represented something is kind of interesting—when that was your “nice coat.”

They’re also very practical is the other thing that I think kind of got lost—they’re very warm. They’re really pretty tough. I think as they’re a luxury item people think of them as delicate, but they’re actually very hardy. If they get wet, you can kind of shake it off. They take a little care, but they’re a lot more practical than you’d think. People in Russia still very prominently wear fur because it’s so damn cold.

I’m a waffler on this issue (I’m also someone who’s gone back and forth about eating meat, as well). But as someone who currently eats meat, it seems precious to feel odd about wearing secondhand fur. After all, the animals are long dead; the company who made the coat might not even exist. No money is being contributed to current cruel animal practices. And yes, fur was and still is a luxury item—a designation of status. But it’s also a practical choice in cold climates, and buying secondhand is better for the environment than buying a brand new coat, even one not made of fur.

But frankly, there’s still a part of me that feels like Cruella DeVil—a little fabulous, sure, kookily old-fashioned, but also a mean, unhinged person who’s okay with puppies being skinned.

So, what do you guys think? Is it okay to buy vintage fur? Does time “take the ugliness and horror out of death and turn it into beauty”?

Image taken from Secondtimearound.

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  1. I’m completely with you on this. I don’t like the idea of modern fur. We just don’t need it anymore, and as a society we have evolved and learned to be humane to our furry friends. BUT, there are PLENTY of vintage furs just hangin’ around waiting to be utilized. I work in a vintage boutique, and in the winter I am surrounded by these taboo treasures. People rarely ever buy them. It has forced me to realize that if no one wears the VINTAGE ones which were made during more frivolous eras, the the animals who were used to make them will have died in vain. If I were an animal that died for my fur I would rather know that my fur was being utilized and keeping someone warm rather than going to waste sitting on a rack slowly rotting year after year. Again, I DO NOT CONDONE MODERN FURS, but the old ones created during less evolved times shouldn’t go to waste, and the deaths of those animals be all for nought.

  2. This is a good post and thread. It seems like there are two basic questions at the center of this debate:

    –What is our responsibility to animals?

    –How can the single individual respond to and counterbalance the cruelties perpetuated by vast industries and whole societies?

    Answering these questions is made more difficult by the fact that for so long, “scientific” Western culture has devalued animals so thoroughly and completely. I just finished reading “The Omnivore’s Dilemma,” a great book, and I understand much more clearly now something that most people know or suspect: the basic human act of eating has been transformed by our culture into a support of practices that are wildly cruel and destructive to animals, the environment, and other people. I mean, how does one little person address all that???

    For me, at this point, I do not wear any fur, vintage or otherwise. Recently I bought a cape that was made of recycled materials, including fur collar. I had it in my house for a month but it made me uncomfortable, so I sold it. It didn’t feel right for me to wear it. I think that the production of new fur should be banned, as ivory harvesting was. Also, I try to eat organic locally farmed vegetables. Also I’m trying to drive less. Also I try to eat local, pasture-raised chicken, eggs, and beef. I shop at thrift store and resale stores like Buffalo Exchange and every single time I make a purchase there, I feel glad that my dollars that are NOT going to mall stores, designer labels, or any company that operates a sweatshop. (Watch “The Last Train Home” to learn about the heartbreaking human experiences that are involved in the production of clothing.)

    Given the difficulty of living ethically when presented with such an overwhelm of ethical challenges, I think it’s important not to judge others too harshly. Although I don’t wear vintage fur myself, I don’t judge others for wearing vintage fur.

  3. Thanks for this article – I have had this debate with myself too. My Nana left a beautiful fur coat which much be around 50 years old now. Mum used to wear it before fur became a huge issue, and then passed it round to me. I wore it because it is a beautiful coat, and it is also a part of our family and a part of my Nana who hasn’t been here since I was 3. I wore it to work once in my old job, in an arts organisation full of vegetarians… and the reception was frosty. I thought, but it’s OLD fur – the animal was killed way before I was even born, so technically there was nothing I could have done… so what’s the harm in wearing it now? Plus I feel like it’s a little piece of my Nana. I don’t know, I still can’t decide if it’s right or wrong… but it’s nice to know other people are having the debate too!

  4. or that ISN’T an endangered/ rare animal, my bad

  5. if yuo’re on moral high ground about whether or not it’s ok to wear fur at all, it’s ok to wear any fur that wasn’t killed for sport or is an endangered/rare animal. i have a rabbit fur coat i have no guilt for wearing, and of course i wear leather like most people, but i wouldn’t walk around in a tiger skin or anything like that.
    people need to get over themselves, we used to wear all sorts of fur for survival, but i know, that was back then, we’re talking about the modern age, but as long as people aren’t being cruel about it, like skinning dogs alive or anything like that then fine, i mean i’d wear baby seal if it was hunted by the people that eat them to survive, i wouldn’t mind giving them money for the skin since they’ve eaten the meat.
    in korea they breed dogs like we breed cows, cute fluffy puppies aren’t seen as pets to them, they’re livestock, it only seems bar barrack to wear or eat dog here because we keep them as domestic pets, in some cases part of the family household.

    FUR DOESN’T ISN’T ALWAYS BRUTAL MURDER!!!

    all you idiots that think so, take a look at any leather you wear….dead cow, yummy dead cow in fact, we eat the meat and wear the skin, what’s so different about wearing any other animal fur that’s treated the same way?

    as for it being second hand, that makes no difference at all, it’s still a bunch of dead animals sown together to make a lovely piece of clothing, so if you’re against fur, then ‘second hand fur’ is no different.

  6. I just bought a vintage fur recently and I also have a leather purse. My one problem with people coming down on wearing fur is that many people carry and wear leather but all of a sudden when it comes to fur it is murder. Most of the major designers and purses many fashionistas covet are made of leather. I am also a big lover of vintage. I think it’s great we can make use of the old instead of mass producing new things. Why let a vintage fur sit on the shelves instead of wearing it out? I understand that some feel that wearing fur perpetuates the value of fur, but personally I don’t think anyone is going to start wearing fur just because I do.

  7. what ms kay said was an excellent point. many bleeding hearts choose to conveniently overlook that anything synthetic, processed, or developed is done in a laboratory or a factory somewhere most likely using harsh chemicals and/or resulting in waste that has few places to go. even after discarded, these items will sit in landfills for extended periods of time, and the chemical waste? well they have their own ways and means of “disposing” of that.

    animal rights seems like a clever distraction. people around the world have been using animals for food, clothing, shelter, and tools FOREVER. if we pollute the world by cutting down trees, building factories, and roads to and from the factories, well then we just destroyed these animals habitat and increased pollution for animals and humans alike. really, it makes no sense to me. “i kill and eat you for sustenance, so i will destroy the amazon rainforest to make soybeans.” i understand there is good intent in there somewhere, but honestly you’re doing just as much damage. sustainability needs to come to the forefront of every conversation on this topic. neither humans nor animals gain anything from the vegan/vegetarian movement when the environment is going to crud thanks to popular trends and ideals.

  8. I love fur. Vintage fur that is, I think this is diffeent. I dont intend in motivating the fur industry at present, however, the two fur coats I have I cherish. They are beautiful antiques to me. I mean, I understand the point of an animal slaughtered then should have just as much relevance as an animal slaughtered now but, I personally see it as a waste of already produced items. A large number of small animals were skinned to make the coat I picked up and chose to purchase. They were skinned for the purpose of creating that coat. That coat which otherwise will be discarded, making the entire process completely pointless, and then really these animals died in vain really. It’s a complete waste. if we could promote the wearing of recycled fur for fashion as well as in prevention of further supporting the further expansion of the fur market, I think we would grow closer to an ideal.

  9. I have two fur coats that my mom gave me. One, a black lamb coat belonged to her grandmother in Germany. Given that I know so many things of theirs were lost in WWII it feels very special to be wearing this coat which survived. It is BEAUTIFUL and I would rather wear it remembering this woman I never met instead of throwing it in a dark closet. I also feel that if an animal is going to be sacrificed for food, we should respect that sacrifice and try not to waste anything. So, never wearing a fur coat from ages ago has always felt like a sort of dishonor to those animals who died so long ago. It doesn’t make perfect “logical” sense maybe but it’s more of an emotional decision for me. The second coat is a red fox coat that was my mom’s in the 70′s. I don’t wear it as often but it is total 70′s glam and so siny and full. It’s warmer than anything else I have ever worn and I always think of my mom in her 20′s walking around looking young and stylish. So, short answer, I wear the coats when it’s really cold outside to stay warm and I revel in the memories they hold. I do worry about perpetuating the “new” fur trade but these are very clearly vintage and I tell ppl that when they ask.

  10. My main concern about the who fur conundrum has already been voiced pretty well. Even as an owner of vintage fur (given to me), I do believe that wearing fur from any era pretty much signifies that it is “in fashion” and therefore makes even new furs seem more reasonable. However, reading through comments got me thinking, isn’t this the same case with faux fur? By wearing fur as a fashion statement at all, fake or not, the message is still that fur is a trend- a look worth attaining. Also, as with there being no sign to state that the fur is vintage, there is no sign to state that fur is fake. Granted, people who spend a lot of time around clothing could probably tell the difference, but those who want to seek confrontation about why fur is wrong might still do just that.

  11. This is a really interesting topic with so many different views. As some of the others have said, fur and leather are really one and the same – however its the term ‘vintage’ which really interests me. Fur coats are still being made in their thousands, and it would be naieve to think that these NEW coats don’t find their way in to the ‘vintage’ market. I once saw a fur coat in a ‘vintage’ shop, and the tag said ‘re-lined vintage rabit fur’ – now, to me, it seemed more like cat fur (so commonly produced in China) and it certainly didnt feel old. I suspect it was just a new coat masquerading as an old coat. I believe so many people wouldnt think that much about it, and would buy the coat – safe in the knowledge that those rabbits died oh so many years ago, back when fur was essential and people didnt know any better.

    To sum up, buying vintage animal skins sadly does not mean that you are not personally perpetuating todays fur industry.

  12. If you buy them at a consignment shop or goodwill you are not supporting the leather/fur industry. You are not contributing to the demand or perpetuating the act.

  13. Its so strange that you wrote about this now because I literally just bought a vintage mink fur cape. I love it and am horrified at myself all at the same time. I currently eat humanely raised and slaughtered meat but was a vegetarian and vegan for several years.

    But, vintage furs are fabulous and represent a time when women and men alike ‘dressed up’ even for day to day activities.

    For me the fur debate is about cruelty yes, but also about a struggle between the romance of an older time and the advances that have been made since then – in equality, in technology, in transportation, all of which bring with them the death of pretense, of cufflinks, of panty hose, of PanAm -esque formality. And there is a bittersweetness in that as there is in embracing a vintage fur. It is something that has died long ago and that we are better off without now (in that we are better off without the modern day fur trade and without the limitations on women’s rights, etc.) and yet we want to have both, the romance and the freedom, because the romance is okay when taken in its own context right? When seen or worn as an homage to a time past. It is not a choice you are making now, but a memory you throw around your shoulders and allow your mind to escape to. At least, that’s what I’m telling myself.

  14. I’m a vegetarian and will not buy leather goods our wool. However, I still wear those things I had “from before”. I wear my clothes until they fall apart, so these items are not in good enough condition to donate, so I wear them. The damage is done and I will now do my part to empty the “cruelty” until I have to buy new. When my grandmother died, I inherited a fur coat. I can think off no reason I would wear it, but I find it difficult to part with it. Perhaps because I know it’s worth half what it was decades ago, but also because it was her’s.
    Side note- I never read the book, but loved the movie version of “I Capture the Castle”!

  15. I discovered that novel when I was 15, and I still reread it once or twice a year; when the film came out, it didn’t play in my town, so I ordered the DVD – and then let it sit on the shelf for several months, afraid that they might have messed up the story.

    • I saw the movie first, actually — retrospectively, I think that they did a pretty good job. Although oddly, after reading the book a million times, I’m now scared to REWATCH the movie.

  16. I was going as margot tennenbaum for halloween and my grandma had a fur coat that looks exactly like the one margot wears in the movie (the coat is from the 1940′s) but i couldn’t bring myself to wear it. i bought some cheap fake fur coat for my costume and looked hideous instead, because i didn’t want anyone to think i was a terrible person for wearing the real thing.

  17. Julia, if you feel that way about fur, then why would you buy second hand leather? So, wearing second hand fur is supporting the fur industry, but wearing second hand leather isn’t supporting the leather industry? that makes zero sense.

  18. I too am on the fence with fur. I have two, I hate to say it, very beautiful vintage fur coats that belonged to my grandmother. They are very pretty, with soft silk linings and one even has my grandmother’s name embroidered in it. I have worn them, on very rare occasion, and I admit, I do feel a bit strange and on edge, as if a can of red paint will come flying at me at any moment. I loathe any sort of animal cruelty. Yet, I think I consider my vintage fur coats to be more of a connection to my past, than a representation of that cruelty. As well, I eat meat and wear leather, so until I stop doing either, I don’t really think I have a right to condemn anyone for wearing fur. BUT, it seems faux fur is all the rage these days. I myself purchased a gorgeous faux fur coat at TJ Maxx for $69.99; it looks and feels like the real thing AND my conscience is a lot clearer and warmer for it.

  19. The photo that is my current FB profile pic has me in fur. It was a coworkers antique vintage fur. I admit that it was just a beautiful piece that I wanted to try on. There was something beautiful about its craftsmanship, yet I was also conflicted about it when I put it on. My coworker made sure to let me know that it was made in the 40′s and was bought at a consignment shop years ago, so she felt that it was acceptable to wear.

  20. As a vegetarian, I only buy used leather, so that I don’t support the leather industry. I want to say the same applies to fur, but I also feel like it’s very conspicuous. It feels to me that just wearing it is a form of support, because it’s so visible.

    • I agree with this completely. I’m vegan and I’ll buy leather from the thrift store because the money is going to the thrift store and is not supporting the leather industry. Fur however just looks cruel and I think that trying to both defend being vegan AND defend why you are vegan and wearing fur will just cause a lot of people to look at you like you’re nuts.
      As far as the not eating meat but wearing fur thing, it’s all the same. Sorry, but you’re not being more human by eating meat and not wearing fur. Animal death is animal death. The method of killing animals for fur IS particularly violent, but animals raised for meat are treated just as horribly. They’re still being raised for consumption.

    • I know what you mean — fur signals itself very visibly, so it’s sending the message that the wearing fur is okay, and there’s no sign you can put on that says “This is vintage! Do not buy new fur!”