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.