Adventures in Thrifting

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

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.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100003087186399 Michelle Helen Victor

    I personally would still not wear it unless I absolutely had to. I am completely against slaughter in general and the fact that it is ‘vintage’ does not change that for me. The animal was still slaughtered. However, I’m also rational in that I believe it can be okay in certain circumstances, for example when the Native American’s would hunt the Buffalo for food (because that was one of their only means, one could argue that they needed to eat meat) and then used the rest of the animal to construct garments and their homes. I still don’t support it from a moral standpoint but I feel that it is far more justifiable. If someone is going to have to buy fur, it should always be second hand. But for me, it doesn’t make it luxury or romantic. I think fur is extremely beautiful and soft and it would be fantastic to have items that soft but not at the cost of other creatures. It belongs on them and only them. Faux fur is the only option for me if I chose to wear it. I also think that, while not intentional of the wearer, many people might see it as okay to wear new fur when they spot someone wearing vintage fur. They may not understand that it’s thrifted or the cruelty involved behind it, so may not think to stop and ask if it’s second hand but instead purchase a new one. It promotes something which we all know to be morally wrong, however you go about it, sadly. So for that reason it doesn’t sit well with me. But as I say, if you are going to wear it, never purchase it new! :)

  • http://www.facebook.com/sara.wallen Sara Wallén

    Fashion has an unending love affair with fur. It seems to go out of fashion for being cruel, and then after a while it comes back in because it’s “edgy” (otherwise known as “a bit naughty”) to wear it again. I was bought a woolly hat with a fur bobble on it for Christmas, seems they’re all the rage in Stockholm. I rather like it – it’s apparently raccoon. I think I would have preferred if it were from a creature which is to be eaten anyway (I have no problem with leather for the most part, and I’m not even sure it’s always cow)…. Are raccoons only every hunted for fur? Or are they also vermin?

  • Anonymous

    Thank you for writing on a subject that’s been rolling around my head like a marble. I, like your friend, sell vintage clothing (online). Over the years I have reformed my thoughts on the matter of vintage fur and came to my own peace with it. I now look at vintage fur as a responsibility to care for, value and reuse the life(s) lost in its creation. For instance, I currently have two of the most cruel coats known to history, made from Persian Lamb. (I’ll spare you the details, but let’s just say very, very wrong.) My mission is to find the right home for them, a collector, museum, someone in Russia, even. If that fails, then they should be repurposed into something useful, like boots, hats or bags. The LAST thing I want to see happen with vintage fur, would be thousands of pelts rotting in landfills when more animals are dying to replace them. So, make new fur illegal? Please! But, waste not, want not.

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=19101944 Laura Owen

      Yes, if you deal with secondhand clothes, the issue of secondhand fur/leather is gonna come up — it’s nearly impossible to avoid. Thanks for sharing your take on it!

  • http://www.facebook.com/madelinekircher Mädi Kay

    For those who might offer faux fur as an alternative, keep in mind that the synthetic fibers used to make it are rendered from natural resources such as coal and petroleum, and can take 100s to 1000s of years to decompose.

    As someone who strictly purchases cruelty-free makeup and household cleaning products, and rarely eats meat due to the malpractices and high pollution of the North American meat industry, and who studied and worked in environmental fields, I have oft grappled with the ethics of my fur products as well. I have a 50-year old vintage parka with coyote fur trim around the hood, and a raccoon hat. The animals used in these products were trapped, which I would never qualify as ‘humane’, but are infinitely more sustainable and environmentally friendly than either farmed fur OR synthetic fibers.

    But yes, it is a tough ethical debate, and I don’t know that anyone could ever come out as a clear victor. It’s up to the individual to weigh their own values and ethics.

  • http://www.facebook.com/kat.toland Kat Toland

    I think it still perpetuates the mentality (and an industry) of cruelty and people who buy it vintage are usually just trying to ease their consciences. This is always especially true among people who will benefit financially from selling it. I get it. Fur is warm, it’s pretty and it always looks and feels decadent. I grew up with grandparents and aunts and uncles clad head to toe in fur and although I always knew it was wrong, what they represented, the safety, the security and the comfort of their extravagant ways confused me. But I didn’t get it twisted when offered those things later in life. I have never and will never wear fur and when I see people wearing it, I don’t wonder if it’s vintage or recycled. I just know it was born of extreme pain and unnecessary suffering. I think our society already tolerates way too much when it comes to animals. I understand the attempt to think you aren’t contributing to the industry because the stuff is old/re-sold,etc., but you are, with your acceptance and endorsement of it.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=612295965 Jen Myers-Carlson

    This is a tough one! An old classmate of mine REALLY wanted a squirrel for a pet. Her husband, of course, said no. So, one day he brought her home a taxidermied squirrel found in an old antique shop. “The sins of the generations before have already been paid for,” was her final thought on whether or not to keep it.

  • http://www.facebook.com/laughingbunstock Jackie Bihr

    I love that novel, it’s one of my favorites as well! As for the real subject, I can’t wear any kind of fur, be it vintage, synthetic, or freshly harvested. I’d look like a bear. Or any large furry animal. I personally can’t condone buying new furs or old ones. And I can’t stand the smell. And since an animal once owned and resided in it, I’d feel like I was stealing. And murdering. And showing off. The guilt wouldn’t be worth the effort of wearing something so impractical and unnecessary.

  • http://www.facebook.com/danyell.nefe Danyell Nefe

    I have fur pellets that came from deer that my dad hunted. I’m a daughter of a gun smith. I hunt. And I think throwing away the pelt is a waste. If the animal was killed for the meat to feed a family then, i have no problem with it. Most vintage fur, depending on how “vintage” it is, the animal probably didn’t die in sin. The meat was probably eaten. People eat rabbit, squirrel, deer, and other animals. i mean how much beef do americans eat? You think all that cow hide goes in the trash? No, it’s used to make leather. It’s all how you look at. I mean I wouldn’t wear a coat made from a dog or a cat. I think if you use all of the animal it’s not cruel. Like the indians.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=19101944 Laura Owen

    Thank you guys for the interesting and thoughtful responses! They really run the gamut of my own reactions — from 1) feeling that wearing fur is endorsing it, even if it’s vintage to 2) feeling that it is arguably worse to buy new synthetic fabrics in some ways to 3) ultimately feeling that the ethical issue varies a great deal depending on the individual piece of fur and how old it is and how it was made. And yes, fashion’s love-hate relationship with fur is strange and often hypocritical — how it goes from in to out to a no-no to wearable again.
    I’m also glad to see other I Capture the Castle fans out there! Really a great book — and Dodie Smith was really ahead of her time in many ways.

  • http://www.facebook.com/shandra Shandra Goldfinger

    Fur is always such a contested issue, and it sort of baffles me that leather doesn’t seem to be thought about nearly as much. I would never wear fur simply because it grosses me out (I’ve been vegan for about 2 years and vegetarian for 6 before that) but I wouldn’t judge someone for wearing vintage fur. I logically know it is better to re-use something that already exists rather than buy something new, and Madi Kay brings up a good point abouy synthetic fibers. However, Kat bring up an equally good point about perpetuating the acceptance of cruelty. My sort of unrealistic solution? Round up all the fur coats, give them to homeless and needy people so they’re off the market, then outlaw slaughtering animals for fur.

    While we’re on the topic- a few notes on leather. Most nice leather does NOT come from the cows that people eat. Cows raised for food live in horrible, dirty conditions and their skin won’t look “nice” enough for leather goods. Plus there’s the way they’re slaughtered for food that also damages the skin. Tanneries are among the top 5 most ecologically UNfriendly factories. So, if you are agaist fur think about the rest of what you wear, too.

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=19101944 Laura Owen

      I know what you mean — I think, as some people have pointed out — it’s the fact that fur is so visibly (so inescapably “made from an animal”) that makes fur so contested, while leather (probably the bigger issue) flies more under the radar. And I wish it were true that leather came from cows people ate, but it isn’t. I like your solution re: fur coats, however. Kind of a brilliant idea!

  • http://www.facebook.com/ashley.lynn.cook Ashley Lynn Cook

    I love vintage furs, mainly because I’m such a romantic and hearing some of the stories of the women that wore them can be quite amazing. And when you put them on, you almost feel the allure and personalities of these women, each with their own character traits being personalized into their specific choosing of that particular style of fur coat/throw/cape, etc. I own one that my ballet instructor gave to me, that her mother gave to her, and every time I wear it to the ballet I can almost imagine when she must have gone to the ballet, and all the wonderful ballets this coat must have seen. And now, I’m just adding to it’s story, and one day my little girl will have it. :-)

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=19101944 Laura Owen

      I think the connection to the past is an important one. While “the look” of fur doesn’t appeal to me, the connection certain older items (which have been in the family for generations) have to the past does appeal to me.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1158520159 Alison Faye Shelley

    I love this topic. I think this is a battle for every girl who cares about animals and the cruelty inflicted upon them for food and clothing purposes. I myself am a vegetarian for 13 years, but I absoluely do wear vintage leather and fur. I really believe it is more like salvaging a piece of the past, and prolonging a treasure that would otherwise just be forgotten anyway. For those people completely against this idea, they make thousands of faux fur items these days so you can still have the look without the internal moral dimlemma!

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=19101944 Laura Owen

      I like the idea of keeping a treasure intact — that’s what my friend who deals with vintage stuff mentioned: if you spend your life with secondhand clothes, you HAVE to deal with the fact that some of them were made from fur. So you can chose to preserve them or not…. I agree that it’s a complicated issue. And even synthetic fur is complicated by the fact that it’s not very environmentally sustainable to make…Ecologically, secondhand is a better choice. But, it still feels weird to promote the idea of fur…basically, the issue sort of makes my brain hurt.

  • http://www.facebook.com/melissaraeb Melissa Rae Brown

    by wearing any kind of fur, whether it be vintage or even faux, you are just sending the message that fur is fashionable and is okay to wear. to the person who said vintage fur was more friendly because they used the whole animal, you couldn’t be more wrong if you tried. most vintage furs come from when fur was at the peak of fashion, and was cruelly harvested. and the same goes with leather. the leather industry does NOT use the entire animal. your leather jacket is not the skin from last nights hamburger. just remember that by making your vintage fur a fashion statement, you are creating a demand, and the demand warrants a supply, and the supply is responsible for cruelty and suffering!

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=19101944 Laura Owen

      This is a good point — in theory, it would be great if we used the “whole animal” and nothing went to waste, but that’s almost never the case with fur or leather, be in vintage or new. Usually, the animal was killed just for its skin.

  • http://www.juliagazdag.com Julia Gazdag

    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.

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=19101944 Laura Owen

      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!”

    • http://www.facebook.com/antheamaure Anthea Thurston

      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.

  • http://www.facebook.com/paige.tomas Paige Tomas

    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.

  • http://www.facebook.com/JamieARollo Jamie Ann Rollo

    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.

  • http://www.facebook.com/melissaraeb Melissa Rae Brown

    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.

  • http://www.facebook.com/Andlikethecatihaveninetimestodie Heather Mckown

    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.

  • http://www.facebook.com/dustbury Charles G. Hill

    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.

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=19101944 Laura Owen

      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.

  • http://www.facebook.com/Graygrrrl Bevin Maloney

    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”!

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