With the Midwest still very much caught in the icy grip of winter, I thought today would be a good opportunity to share one of my interests that I don’t discuss on the blog often—vintage furs. Fur isn’t for everyone, but it was less controversial just a few generations ago. I’ve always been fascinated with real fur. Maybe it was because I grew up watching too many vintage movies with fur-clad starlets or maybe it’s simply the awe-inspiring craftsmanship that goes into creating a single garment. A full length coat can take up to 500 hours to produce and is a laborious process of slicing pelts into thousands of thin strips and sewing them all back together in a form fitting shape. It’s an unbelievable process—but it comes at a price. Furs have always been expensive, often thousands of dollars. As with any coveted thing, many vintage furs have been handled with kid gloves over the years and remain lingering in closets to delight us decades later.
The styles have changed dramatically over the years like any fashionable clothing, but America’s glamorous and prosperous postwar years yielded some of the most fantastic designs that buyers still seek today. If you find yourself drawn in by the lure of vintage fur, hopefully today’s post will help you make the right choices in buying and caring for your coat. I’ll share some images of the many coats that have passed through my hands and the lessons I’ve learned from them. So, let’s get started.
What kind of fur do you want?
The possibilities here are nearly endless. In the past, coats have been made out of everything from skunks and squirrels to horses and monkeys and each has unique qualities. I’m continuously finding new examples that stump me (including a skunk coat I found with Angela just this past weekend). You can spend some time on the Vintage Fashion Guild’s website learning about the different types of fur historically used in fashion, but some of the most common vintage furs you’ll encounter are mink, fox, Persian lamb, mouton lamb and rabbit.
Mink is a thick, glossy fur that’s shorter in length and lightweight. It was extremely popular from the 1930s through the 1960s as farm raised mink or “ranch mink” became a booming industry in the U.S. Selective breeding led to “mutation mink” or mink of standardized color that vary greatly from those found in the wild. Over the years dozens of colors ranging from white to jet black have been created. Because minks are oily semiaquatic animals, their pelts are among the longest lasting and hardest wearing of furs.
The most desirable mink coats are those made from full female mink pelts. Male mink pelts are slightly less plush and lustrous. Wild mink, seen more often in antique coats, is sometimes less plush and lustrous—occasionally even shaggy—and is often a reddish brown color sometimes called whiskey or cinnamon. Some coats known as pieced or sectioned mink are made from thousands of tiny scraps of pelts or even fur from the feet and tails of mink. These often have a striking appearance, though the large number of seams makes them prone to developing holes.
Fox fur is very full with long, fluffy guard hairs. Fox has always been popular, but full volume fox coats became popular in the 1970s and 80s. Fox pelts are extremely lightweight, but their hides are much thinner and can dry out and damage more easily. The lofty hairs are also very susceptible to wear from touching or rubbing and with heavy wear can go completely bald. Fox can range from reddish to white to grays and browns, with lighter colors being the most popular.
Persian lamb, the pelts of very young karakul sheep, is also known as swakara and has a signature tight, curly texture. Pelts of fetal karakul sheep are known as broadtail and have less of a less curly nap. Persian lamb ranges in color from silver to jet black and has a heavier weight. It’s a hard wearing fur, but can be susceptible to drying out and improperly cared for coats can sometimes fall apart from their own weight. Persian lamb is less expensive and less popular than other furs, but has a very unique look.
Mouton Lamb is the sheared pelt of a young sheep that has been chemically processed to create a velvety soft texture. Mouton lamb is plush and has a heavy leather pelt. It’s extremely hard wearing, warm and long lasting. Generally mouton lamb was sold as a substitute for seal and an economical alternative to sheared beaver. People are often surprised to learn mouton fur is not synthetic. Coats are usually seen in blondes, browns and black.
Rabbit is a widely used and inexpensive fur. Rabbit became popular for off-the-rack furs in the 1970s as more garments began to be imported from Asian countries. Rabbit fur is typically soft but thin and often sheds slightly. Rabbit pelts are rarely let out and usually you can see the seams clearly between each pelt. They can be dyed any color of the rainbow. Rabbit is a good “just for fun” fur, but it doesn’t wear or age terribly well. Rex rabbit fur is of better quality and today is often used as a substitute for costly chinchilla fur.
How do you want to wear fur?
You have a lot of options. Vintage fur coats usually exist as capes, jackets, stroller length and full length coats. Choose something that makes sense for how you want to wear it. Fur can be a restrictive, bulky material, so keep that in mind.
And why not have some fun with it and go for something a little funky?
And if a coat isn’t for you, perhaps a fur accessory such as a removable collar, stole or hat will do the trick?
What should you look for when buying a vintage fur?
Condition is key. The life of a fur coat depends wholly on how it has been worn, cared for and stored. Fur is not a textile—it’s fur. It’s a leather hide with hair and unlike most textiles fur is perishable. To maintain its look, feel and serviceability, the leathers must maintain their natural oils and if those go, so does the coat. What damages fur? Heat, humidity, insects, sunlight, extreme temperature changes, excessive wear, lack of cleaning. So how can you tell if a coat is in good shape?
Touch. A fur coat should be soft and silky. Although heavier furs like lamb might feel thick, the hides should not feel stiff, brittle or papery—these are signs that the leather is too dry to be of service. The fur itself should be free and soft, not matted, greasy or sticky and it should not “slip” or shed hairs when handled.
Sight. Look the coat over for wear and holes. Excessive wear might expose a downy undercoat or even leave the coat completely bald—once hair is gone it’s gone for good. Look for this wear along edges, pockets, cuffs, collars and elbows. Holes and tears can simply happen from aggressive handling, especially in the arm pits, and these can be repaired by a reputable furrier. If a coat is riddled with tears, especially those that occur between seams or are jagged in the middle of the hide, this may indicate that the hides have started to dry out and will not hold repairs. If you see tiny pieces of the hide breaking off or crumbling around any holes or tears, the coat will likely not be repairable. Also look for heavy wrinkles that may indicate the coat spent some time wadded up in a ball. Deep wrinkling in hides may be irreversible.
Finally, check for any visible evidence of mold, mildew or moth damage. Any white or yellow spotting, especially around the bottom of the coat on the lining may mean the coat has spent some time growing mold in a wet basement. AVOID. Tiny holes all over the lining or tiny shed insect shells are a telltale sign of an ancient bug infestation. AVOID. Also be aware that heavily discolored white furs might not come clean with fur cleaning.
Smell. Get your nose in there and take a deep whiff. Fur is natural and will have some odor, but it shouldn’t be strong. If you smell mustiness or cigarette odors, AVOID. These odors will likely never leave the coat. Furriers can ionize odorous coats, but there may be deeper damage. Mildew slowly eats away at the hides making them dry and weak and cigarettes can leave chemicals on the fur that also break it down—even if you can deodorize it, it might simply fall apart.
How do you take care of fur?
Clean it. Cleaning furs removes skin oils and dirt that can incrementally build up and cause the coat to deteriorate. You should NEVER attempt to clean a fur coat yourself and NEVER take your fur coat to a dry cleaner. Fur cleaning is a specialized process that should only be done by a professional furrier. It costs about $50 to clean a coat and it’s worth it.
Wear it (with care). Fur is a luxury material and it takes a little special care. Avoid sitting in your coat, especially while driving, as this can cause a lot of rub wear damage. Don’t wear it in rain or snow or in smoke-filled environments. Most importantly, don’t break dance in it, it’s just not made for that.
Store it. Storing a fur with your furrier when you’re not wearing it is the best way to make sure it’s kept at the proper temperature and humidity and away from sunlight. It’s not that expensive and it will add years to your coat’s life.
But the most important thing is to have fun with it. There’s a certain joy that comes with knowing you’re walking around like a silver screen star or a railroad magnate in a coat that, to buy new, would cost about $10,000 plus—and you didn’t pay anything close to that. The question that I get asked the most often is, “When and how do you wear a fur coat?” I always answer the same way, “Whenever you want and like you own it.”