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Fashion History Lesson: The Real Story Behind Fake Fur

Whether for saving money or saving animals, faux fur reflects the current state of the fashion industry.
Alexandra Lapp wearing a fake fur jacket from Jakke in Paris, Sept. 2017. Photo: Christian Vierig/Getty Images

Alexandra Lapp wearing a fake fur jacket from Jakke in Paris, Sept. 2017. Photo: Christian Vierig/Getty Images

Welcome to Fashion History Lesson, in which we dive deep into the origin and evolution of the fashion industry's most influential and omnipresent businesses, icons, trends and more.

Man-made fur has gone by many names — mock fur, imitation fur, simulated fur, fabric fur — but the fashion world found its preferred nomenclature when Cher Horowitz proudly declared, "It's faux," back when the craze for over-the-top furry accents hit a new high in the mid-1990s.

Perhaps more than any other material used in fashion, faux fur is considered as much a political statement as it is a fashion statement. It may seem relatively unremarkable when almost every brand is peddling some form of furry fashion, but there's something to be said about a material that was initially created to cheat Mother Nature. Perhaps we're programmed to think that donning a fuzzy coat will keep us safe from the elements based on the needs of our ancestors. Then again, our ancestors didn't have indoor heating or any of the other fashionable and technologically advanced choices that we have today, so why do we still feel the desire to go outside looking like polar bears and leopards?

Real or fake, fur is still an extremely controversial topic with serious environmental concerns existing on both sides of the issue. While the fur trade is associated with animal cruelty and bringing some species closer to extinction, the faux fur business (like most of fashion) often relies on harmful chemicals and cheap labor to produce millions of garments at affordable prices. To better understand the ongoing debate on fur, we're taking a closer look at how fake fur disrupted one of the biggest and most historically significant industries in human history, and what it means for the future of fashion.

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[Left]: Painting of Egyptian princess Neferetiabet (dated 2590-2565 BC). Photo: Wikimedia Commons; [Right]: Portrait of Louise of Orléans (1812-1850), Photo: Wikimedia Commons

[Left]: Painting of Egyptian princess Neferetiabet (dated 2590-2565 BC). Photo: Wikimedia Commons; [Right]: Portrait of Louise of Orléans (1812-1850), Photo: Wikimedia Commons


Fur garments have played a significant role in human history beyond their practical uses like warmth and protection. In many cultures across the globe and throughout time, particular animal skins have been reserved for rulers, nobility and other elite classes. In Ancient Egypt, only royalty and high priests could adorn themselves with leopard skins, and later English kings issued royal proclamations that reserved costly furs, such as fox and ermine, for the noble elite between the 1300s and 1600s. Aside from being expensive to obtain in the first place, these laws made high-end fur unobtainable (and perhaps more desirable) to people across all social classes while helping to establish fur as a visual indicator of social status. After fur coats became the de facto look for Hollywood starlets and trophy wives in the early 1900s, the fur-clad bourgeois woman was widely considered the ultimate symbol of material wealth and power. [1]

By the 1970s, the fur coat had transformed from a desirable commodity to a target of animal rights activism. International legislation, such as the Endangered Species Act of 1973, coincided with a number of anti-fur protests that continued into the 1980s and 1990s, led by organizations such as People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA). The anti-fur movement reached a new level when PETA featured models Naomi Campbell and Cindy Crawford posing nude in its 1994 campaign, promoting the slogan, "I'd rather be naked than wear fur." However, even with wavering profit margins, the fur industry has continued to stay strong over the years, but not without competition from man-made alternatives.

Fur fashion show, 1960s. Photo: STRINGER/Stringer

Fur fashion show, 1960s. Photo: STRINGER/Stringer


The faux fur industry was not prompted by compassion for animals, but rather the need for fabric manufacturers to make quick-and-easy money. Fake fur, much like fake gold and diamonds, provided people with ways to emulate the upper classes.

One of the earliest mentions of fake fur in the media comes from Harper’s Bazaar in the late 1860s, suggesting some crochet methods to create the effect of fur for children's clothes and small accessories. [2] This was solely for convenience and saving money, as at this time, it was assumed that no person would choose to forgo the real thing if they didn't have to. Imitation fur continued to be mentioned by fashion magazines in the late 1800s, but an article from 1899 in Harper's Bazaar warned readers that, "At all times, imitation fur is a dangerous investment." [3] The idea is echoed in a Vogue article from 1912 that says fabric fur is "only a substitute for fur and will not be largely used by fastidious women." [4]

In 1913, Vogue published another article that prophetically declared that the popularity of automobiles and outdoor activities had resulted in the depletion of fur-bearing animals, and, "as in all cases where man has discovered that he can convert natural resources into gold, it will eventually cause their complete extinction." [5] The article went on to warn that much of the fur sold on the market at the time could actually be some form of imitation. This article was actually talking about selling cheap muskrat in place of mink, cat instead of seal or raccoon instead of bear, but it's obvious that a convincing and affordable man-made alternative would be an easy way to get rich. Thus the competition for creating fabrics that rivaled Mother Nature had begun. "There will always be deception so long as the crowd strives to dress in such a way as to resemble those who can afford handsome and expensive clothes," wrote the New York Times in 1924. [6]

While it was normally assumed that fake fur was only worn when the real thing was out of reach, jazz-age animal lovers had already embraced the faux long before PETA was even formed. One article from Women's Wear Daily in 1926 reported, "Many titled and society women of Great Britain are identifying themselves with animal defense associations and are displaying outward and visible signs of their activities in this direction by wearing artificial furs instead of the real skins." [7]

However, the imitations that were being offered — mostly made from wool or rayon or mixtures of these fibers on a mohair foundation — were a bit too good, and for this reason, the article says that there was a demand for so-called "bad" imitations of fur by society women who ironically had enough money to spend on the best of the best.

PETA protestors, 1993. Photo: Bob Strong/Getty Images

PETA protestors, 1993. Photo: Bob Strong/Getty Images


Since people had been trading animal fur throughout most of recorded history, the introduction of man-made alternatives in the early 20th century certainly brought tension to the clothing industry. Back in 1912, a Women’s Wear Daily piece asked, "Are ['Fabric Furs'] becoming dangerous trade rivals of the cheaper kinds of natural furs?" In the article, a fur industry executive said that textile imitations would "not be patronized to any extent by good dressers and people of quality," keeping with the idea that fake fur was only for the lower classes. However, a leader in the faux fur industry went on to explain that that a woman who buys a pricey coat of real fur will have to pay for its upkeep and eventually alter the style to keep up with new fashions. On the other hand, she could buy a new artificial one each year to keep up with styles and not pay as much money. [8] And so begins the ideology of fast fashion: Why pay more for the real thing when you can buy more of something similar for less?

By the 1950s, synthetic fur garments had become extremely popular and affordable, coinciding with the age of plastics, microwave dinners and other conveniences of the modern age. Newspapers continuously reported on major chemical companies that were trying to outdo each other in the quest to create the most realistic and luxurious fake fur, patenting new fibers and methods and selling their signature faux skins under flashy brand names, such as Cloud No. 9, Borgana, Glenara and Dynasty. Towards the end of the decade, the New York Times reported that fake furs had recently stirred up opposition among manufacturers of natural fur garments as the sales of synthetic furs quickly rose from several million dollars in 1954 to around $80,000,000 in 1957. [9]

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In the 1960s, young women were ready to shed the traditions (and the mink coats) of their mothers. In addition to the growing need for new styles at affordable prices, the faux fur industry also benefited from the anti-fur movements of the 1970s. The manufacturer of "Timme-Tation" fake furs ran an ad in the July 1970 issue of Vogue that marveled how "one woman […] is actually wearing 1/60 of the world's tiger population on her back." [10] Faux fur ads were no longer just about imitating real fur — they were also about fighting against the entire fur industry.

Leandra Medine wearing a Staud fake fur coat during New York Fashion Week, Feb. 2017. Photo: Christian Vierig/Getty Images

Leandra Medine wearing a Staud fake fur coat during New York Fashion Week, Feb. 2017. Photo: Christian Vierig/Getty Images


The popularity of natural fur has gone up and down over the years, arguably profiting the most from the pro-fur stance of fashion dictator Anna Wintour, who has been famously called a "fur hag" by anti-fur protestors. However, after Vogue Paris published an homage to faux fur in August 2017 and Gucci joined other animal-friendly labels by announcing its commitment to being completely fur-free months later, it seems like faux fur may have now found a permanent place on the runways, especially with more brands than ever selling faux options at a variety of price points. 

In addition to more companies eschewing natural fur and more countries banning fur production, the future of the faux fur industry may soon benefit from advances in biotechnology. It's been reported that designer Ingvar Helgason (formerly of the brand Ostwald Helgason) is developing BioFur, which would grow synthetic pelts the way that Modern Meadow has been able to produce lab-grown leather and Diamond Foundry creates lab-grown diamonds. 

But not everyone believes that faux fur is the most "eco-friendly" option. In a recent debate on the fur trade hosted by Business of Fashion, Frank Zilberkweit, director of the British Fur Trade Association, argued that natural fur was more sustainable, pointing out that many forms of faux fur are not biodegradable. "Our industry is about raising animals in a natural way, a kind way and it's a renewable resource," he said. Others argue that the chemical processes needed to treat animal furs in order to be worn are just as detrimental to the environment.

Will faux fur ever replace the real thing? Probably not, considering that there is still plenty of consumer interest in animal fur despite realistic alternatives; but the significance of fake fur extends far beyond its profit margins. From knock-off designs to body-shaping garments, the fashion industry has always been able to find ways to help consumers "fake it until they make it"; fake fur may just be the coup d’etat for an industry that continually strives to extend the limits of Mother Nature. For that reason, faux fur is essentially a symbol of the modern era, representing science's continuous strive to replicate natural resources and the social equality made possible by high fashion looks becoming available to people of all income levels through mass production. How's that for a fashion statement?

Sources not linked:

[1]: Emberley, Julia. "Fur." In The Berg Companion to Fashion, edited by Valerie Steele. Oxford: Bloomsbury Academic, 2010.

[2]: “Girl's Crochet Imitation Fur Muff, Collar, Cuffs, and Barette.” Harper's Bazaar, December 28, 1867: 131-132.

[3]: “Garments for the Coming Season.” Harper's Bazaar, October 14, 1899: 865, 877.

[4]: “Proclamations of Fashion's Herald.” Vogue, September 1, 1912: 33, 34, 35.

[5]: “Fur and Near-Fur.” Vogue, October 15, 1913: 92.

[6]: “Furs for Any Purse: Demand Keen for Cheap Substitute for Costly Pelts.” New York Times, February 17, 1924: XX2.

[7]: “British Nobility, Warring On Skins, Aids Fabric Furs.” Women's Wear Daily, June 18, 1926: 19.

[8]: “Furs.” Women's Wear Daily, October 10, 1912: 1, 4-5.

[9]: Tompkins, John S. “Mills Widen List of Synthetic Furs.” New York Times, September 29, 1957: 155.

[10]: Gordon, Jennifer Farley and Colleen Hill. Sustainable Fashion: Past, Present and Future. London: Bloomsbury, 2015.

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