November 29, 2010

What To Do About Hand-Me-Down Fur?

Look at that face!

When fur is more than a fashion statement.

As my first winter in New York City approached last year, I paid a visit to my family in Maryland. I was gathering up my stuff to leave when my mom strode out of her closet with her big, white, floofy, chub fur coat and pressed it on me. “You’ll want this when it gets cold in New York.”

I looked at the coat with mixed feelings. On the one hand I have wonderful memories associated with fur coats. I associate it with those special times with my mom and sister, just us three going to Baltimore for a ballet, a symphony, or The Nutcracker. I clearly remember burrowing my face into the softness of her full-length wolf coyote-and-fox coat while the icy wind blew in from the harbor. I felt loved and happy. When we visited New York City for the first time, she wore her sleek mink coat and brought the fox-and-wolf coyote coat for her friend to wear in the sub-freezing weather. But for the walk from our hotel to The Plaza to pick her up, I got to wear it. I wrapped it around my shoulders like a warm hug. People stared at me, the tiny 12-year-old trying to keep the white fur from dragging on the sidewalk. I felt glamorous and happy. Fur for me is one link to my mom’s love, her exposing me to the arts and taking the time to treat her two little girls like both princesses and grownups.

That was more than a decade ago, and now as she held it out to me, I stalled. “I don’t know, Mom. I’m not sure it’s for me.”

First of all, the luxurious fur seemed conspicuous and even in bad taste. Who wears fur anymore? Certainly not me, a 23-year-old who lives a decidedly unglamorous life. I don’t hang out with the kind of people who consider fur a necessary accessory. I’m not friends with Kim Kardashian, after all, and I don’t attend black tie events. Come to think of it, I even remember hearing my mom lie once to another mother when she wore her fur to a birthday party. She said that we were leaving to go straight to the symphony. So I know even she has some qualms about its every day use.

Wearing fur is a bold statement. If I decided to put it on, nobody would look at me and see a girl dressing up in her mom’s old fur from the 80’s, staying warm from both the softness and memories. I’m afraid they would see a spoiled brat who cares little for animals and has way too much money for her own good. They might be so busy judging me, they might never actually get to know me. When I pulled on a small rabbit fur shrug (which is now in the “to consign” pile) my boyfriend raised his eyebrows and said, “That doesn’t seem like something you would wear.” Being a conscious consumer and wearing just don’t go together.

But then what is the alternative? My mom hasn’t worn that chub since before I can remember.

The ecosystem-damaging nutria.

I could give it away for someone supposedly more shallow and more fashionable to wear. But then it would still exist, be out in the world, a testament to the most-likely cruel slaughter of foxes.  But the greenie in me doesn’t want to see it destroyed either. What a waste!

Things have been further complicated by the rise of humanely-raised meat. I can now buy a free range turkey and chicken, grass-fed beef and pork from animals that led happy lives. What does this mean for the fur industry? Can one procure humanely-raised fur?

Actually, you can get “guilt-free fur.” It’s called nutria, and it’s an invasive rodent that is tearing up the Louisiana wetlands at an alarming pace. The only successful program to mitigate the damage has been a bounty program that pays $5 per tail. But the killed nutria are being left behind to rot. Righteous Fur is a program that seeks to honor the nutria a la Native American philosophy by using every part: the fur, the teeth, and even the meat. So yes, you can get free range, swamp-fed fur.

A fox fur chub that looks exactly like mine. Doesn't it look rad?

And yet, that doesn’t make me feel better about my giant chub which, by the way, is taking up a significant amount of space in my closet, like a petulant child demanding attention. Yes, I took the chub with me, and I wore it a couple times when the temperature dropped below 15 and I could justify it to my friends. I still felt silly though, even though the NYC style blogs had been featuring several fashionistas rocking a chub just like it.

Is it even fair to compare fur to meat? Now that Patagonia is putting out wonderful, eco-friendly and warm coats, there’s no way I can make the argument that I need fur the way I need some protein in my diet, even if I lived in Russia. It’s over-the-top, extravagant, and less than necessary. Of course, when I was making the long walk to work at eight AM last year, with an icy wind blowing off the Hudson right into my face and the temperature flirting with 10 degrees, I probably would have told you that yes, fur is indispensable. On that count, at least, Mom was right.

And though sustainable living and animal rights often go hand in hand, at least for this subject, real fur to me just seems like a much more natural choice than faux fur made of synthetic, petroleum-based materials. Then again, my fur was once an adorable fox. I mean, adorable. And it really wasn’t doing anyone harm, unlike the nutria.

I can’t end this conversation without diving into the history of my particular chub. Unfortunately, Google is almost silent on the issue. From what I can tell from various less-than-reputable sources (here, here, here, and here) my fur may have come from a wild Arctic fox in Canada that was trapped after living a fulfilling life far away from man. Most likely, though, it was raised on a farm in China or Scandinavia where it may or may not have been treated well.

And finally, there is one more consideration. Even thought I did not pay money for this fur, even though it’s older than me and comes from a place that is full of love and memories, in wearing it, do I condone the practice of wearing fur in general? I’m not in the position to influence anyone on matters of fashion, so how much moral weight does my wearing a big, in-your-face fur coat carry?

I have yet to come to a decision on this, dear Ele readers. But the temperature is quickly dropping, so please, let me know your thoughts in the comments.

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