The battlelines over furs in fashion have shifted since the 1980s. Julia Emberley reports on the latest twists in the debate
People trash it, treasure it, fight over it. People wear it, trap it, skin, tan and sell it. It is practical, expensive, erotic. It is garment and fetish.
The contradictory images of fur started to loom large in the 1980s, when the fur-trapping and fashion industries attracted savage criticism from animal rights organisations over the cruel procedures used to obtain furs. Images of the struggle since have infiltrated everyday life. Consider the "X" spray-painted on the back of a fur coat in a scene from the 1987 film Sammy and Rosie Get Laid or a recent article in Canada's The Globe and Mail, which ran with the headline "Fur today's fashions, we'd rather dance with wolves than skin them". Or observe Dennis Patterson, former leader of the government of Canada's Northwest Territories, wearing a vest of seal-skin to boost the continued commercial value of seal hunting to the economies of the Dene and Inuit, indigenous peoples living in Alaska, Greenland and Canada.
Animal rights organisations such as Lynx, which was created in 1984, launched a media campaign against fur fashions. Billboard signs and cinema commercials juxtaposed images of fur-clad women with those of mutilated animals. Such images provoked a strong response, not least from feminists infuriated by Lynx's choice of women as the main targets of criticism. Lynx also made videos explaining the barbaric procedures used to kill animals for the fur fashion trade, touching a nerve with its depiction of heaps of pink animal carcasses. The campaign was hugely effective: fur sales in Britain reportedly fell 75 per cent between 1985 and 1990.
Lynx's success was not due solely to consciousness-raising about limited natural resources. Its hard-hitting campaign intimidated women and instilled a sense of moral superiority in anti-fur sympathisers.
Perhaps the strongest criticism of Lynx was over its downplaying of the effect of its activities on fur producers, particularly the Dene and Inuit, whose livelihood was affected dramatically by falling sales. Lynx tried to render indigenous involvement in the wild fur trade irrelevant by arguing that only 1per cent of animals trapped in North America are caught by native peoples. But this did not convey the huge reliance of the Inuit and Dene on hunting and trapping. Money from trapping is their primary income: it enables them to live in the north as hunter-gatherers.
The 1980s debate over fur centred on the struggle between animal liberationists (such as Lynx in Britain or People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) in the United States) and indigenous peoples' fight for self-determination, including the right to live off the land. Organisations such as Indigenous Survival International (ISI), made up of people from the far north of Canada, were formed in the mid-1980s to counter misinformation put out by anti-fur organisations. Hugh Brody's book, Living Arctic: Hunters for the Canadian North, commissioned as the official publication of a British Museum exhibition held during 1987-88, was produced in collaboration with ISI and conveyed the message that for northern indigenous peoples, fur trapping is a principal economic pursuit and a tie to traditional ways of life.
In this decade, the battlelines have shifted. The anti-fur campaign is now being fought on the international legislative front: the European Union is trying to ban the import of wild fur from countries using the leg-hold trap to ensnare animals. The ban was due to take effect in January 1996, but it was postponed until January 1997 and then delayed again pending an international agreement on humane trap standards between Canada, the United States, Russia and the EU.
In response to the pressure to stop fur trapping, the fashion industry adjusted its representation of fur. In September 1992, the New York Times Magazine ran a fashion spread titled "Furs in Disguise". Fake furs and disguised furs became the vogue. The techniques of disguise masked the use of real fur, removing the product from its association with furry animals. Fashion designers such as Jean Paul Gaultier continue to exploit aboriginal aesthetics by incorporating Inuit designs into their fake fur fashion designs.
Not wishing to see Canada's economic interests in the fur trade decline further, the Fur Council of Canada has commissioned D'Arcy Moses, a member of the Gitskan nation of northern British Columbia who is also a fur fashion designer, to produce real fur coats based on aboriginal designs. In 1995 and 1996, Ottawa's Museum of Civilization held an Inuit fashion show, advertised as a celebration of Inuit culture and tradition.
In the most recent twist in environment politics and fashion, Montreal-based fashion designer Mariouche Gagne, wanting to use biodegradable products, began using recycled fur to craft accessories. As a natural fibre, fur will have a shorter lifespan than synthetic materials. Which is more environmentally sound? Natural fur or synthetic fur products that protect animal life but consume other natural resources such as oil and wood?
Julia Emberley's book Venus and Furs is published by I.B. Tauris, March 26, Pounds 35/Pounds 11.95.