Is Vintage Fur Ethical? A Moral Debate With Myself

Last weekend I had an unprecedented experience that compelled me to write this piece. I had ventured into Oregon City for the evening to have dinner with a close friend of mine, and afterwards we popped into a thrift store down the street. Unlike in hipster populated Portland, secondhand stores in Oregon City are, for lack of a better work, legit. Prices are negotiable and the products that line the dusty shelves are certified vintage or antiques, with descriptive labels detailing their past lives. I’ve found some amazing pieces in these shops, where weathered army jackets line the racks and etched silver platters sparkle in the windows.

It was while I was wrapped up in this je ne sais quoi fantasy about thrift shops that I encountered a jacket—a fur jacket—that made my jaw drop open. It was the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen, made of rabbit fur and thick brown suede. My friend urged me to “just try it on.” It was a perfect fit and I immediately loved it. A minute later, I seriously grappled with my reaction. I’d always been opposed to wearing fur; the sight of it conjuring up images of tortured animals and poorly run Chinese fur farms where many fur products originate from nowadays. How could I possibly justify buying this jacket? 

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Copyright Haley Graham Photography

Well, argued the other half of my conflicted brain, I’d be supporting a locally owned store that deserved my business. Plus, as the tag explained, this jacket was from the 1960s, and as any ethical shopper knows, buying vintage is nearly always a safe option. Even more, I figured this jacket would be more durable and better quality than nearly any of the ones I’ve purchased from mass market department stores the past few years. “This jacket will stand the test of time,” I told myself.

To be honest, I was surprised by how attached I felt. I knew I’d regret leaving the jacket behind, and if I was back in that same store today I’d do the same thing. It was love at first sight. And so I bought it.

However, I’ll admit I’ve spent some time mulling over the implications of my purchase and how it will be perceived by the public. The truth is, a lot of of people hate fur. I’ve found that most people simply bypass “dislike,” and head straight into the white-hot hatred zone. In an attempt to become more educated on the subject of wearing fur, I started to do some thinking.

the grey area

It’s naive to assume that there’s no grey area when it comes to the clothes we wear. I can admit that even as someone deeply passionate about ethical fashion. No one’s perfect and nearly no product is either. In the best of cases, we can find a something we love that satisfies a few “ethical credentials,” such as fair trade, organic, or secondhand. Even in the ethical fashion market, it’s extremely rare to find a product that can satisfy every possible one.

While it’s easy to draw sweeping conclusions about people who wear fur, it’s far more challenging to recognize the hypocrisies that arise when we consider how our own decisions fit within that black-and-white rhetoric. If you’re opposed to wearing fur, then technically you should feel the same way about leather. But leather doesn’t illicit the same kind of reaction as fur because it’s less evocative. We can extend this even further through the lifestyle lens. If you condemn fur, then it would be sensible to adopt a vegetarian diet as well, since animals die that way too. After all, what good is hating on fur if you’re about to devour a big juicy steak?

Rachel Poliquin, author of The Breathless Zoo: Taxidermy and the Cultures of Longing, concludes that “unless you live your life without using any animal products, and you don’t wear leather shoes or a leather belt, and you don’t eat meat, you’re always a hypocrite, and there is no gray.”

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Copyright Haley Graham Photography

guilt-free fur

Wearing faux fur is a fair compromise for many people who appreciate the look of fur but feel weary of the stigma. Unfortunately, this option isn’t guilt-free either.  Faux fur is made from non-renewable petroleum-based products, then treated with heat and chemicals to enhance its look and feel. It’s significantly more detrimental to the environment than the real thing, which is entirely biodegradable. Still, who plants their old fur jackets in the backyard?

then and now

Obviously, the inhumane treatment of animals is always wrong, without exception. That being said, the rise of fur is understandable when examined within its historical context. For instance, in the ’50s cars still didn’t have heat, and fur provided the extra boost of warmth that men and women needed while commuting in the cold. Additionally, there was less awareness surrounding animal rights in general. It wasn’t until activists began mobilizing in the 1960s that the public began to become sensitized to the suffering of animals. Nevertheless, fur continued to be seen as a marker of status and luxury throughout much of the twentieth century, the trend being perpetuated to its fullest by glamorous celebrities like Marilyn Monroe and Jackie Kennedy.

In a modern context, fur doesn’t warrant the same vindication. We now have man-made alternatives that are arguably as warm as fur, and we’re more exposed than ever to the realities of the industry. Nevertheless, fur will always be around. Its popularity, while subject to fluctuation, has never entirely dissipated, and some climates are simply so cold that fur coats make regular appearances.

As online vintage retailer Samantha Davis says, “There are always going to be those who really dislike fur, and then there’s always going to be those in the middle, and then those who really like it. So how can we get those in the middle and those who really like fur to buy second-hand? How can we change the new fur industry in such a way that they are producing less or turning to second-hand fur to recycle into new looks? If that can become part of the public consciousness, then we can alleviate the problem, because people as a whole are never going to stop liking fur.”

I’ve had a long moral debate with myself about the issue of vintage fur and I’d be lying if I said I feel totally at ease. Today I wore my jacket out for the first time, and while I was worried at first that I’d catch some nasty stares or find myself fending off mean comments, I didn’t encounter any of that. Now that I’ve officially braved the subject, I can’t help but feel a little bit relieved. Personal expression is the best art form I know and I’ve never let fear of judgement stop me from being myself. Perhaps my friend summed it up best when she said this, “The most important thing is that you do you.”

Hello, grey space.*

*I plan on occupying a very minimal amount of grey space. 

Further Reading:

Should You Feel Guilty About Wearing Vintage Fur? 

Is Fake Fur Worse Than Real Fur?

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3 thoughts on “Is Vintage Fur Ethical? A Moral Debate With Myself

  1. When I moved to NYC, my mom gave me her old fur coat from the 80s. It’s huge, and it is really, really warm. Warmer than any puffer I’ve experienced. When the temperature drops below 10 degrees, I pull that baby on and feel like I’m walking around with my own climate control. Would I ever buy an entirely new fur coat? Absolutely not (unless it’s from Titania Inglis, who sources her skins from indigenous people). But there’s so much vintage fur floating around at affordable prices, I’m not against picking up a vintage piece!

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    1. Alden, I so appreciate your insight on this topic! I’ve had a lot of friends comment on this article who said the same thing; that they “inherited” a fur coat from a family member. I can certainly agree about the benefits of warmth, not to mention fur looks especially chic in NYC. I also wouldn’t buy a new fur coat (though previously I never thought I’d own a vintage one either) as I’m far too familiar with the current climate of the fur industry to justify it. On another note, I’m absolutely, irrevocably in love with Titania Inglis and all of her pieces. What an incredible label! I’d go for anything she designs.

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  2. I work at a thrift shop and I LOVE when we get an old fur piece in. It’s so extravagant by today’s standards to own a huge, luscious, soft fur coat and every time I touch one, I think about how awesome it is that animals have beautiful fur. As a reminder of our past and as a tribute to the animal that died to make it, I think we should learn to cherish vintage furs.

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