The Cultural Politics of Fur

The Cultural Politics of Fur

The Cultural Politics of Fur

The Cultural Politics of Fur


Fur has been sparking controversies ever since sumptuary laws marked it as a luxury item and as a sign of medieval class privilege. Drawing on wide-ranging historical and contemporary sources, Julia V. Emberley explains how a material good has become both a symbol of wealth and sexuality, and a symptom of class, gender, and imperial antagonisms.

Emberley documents the 1980s confrontations between animal rights activists and native peoples that pitted Lynx, the organization responsible for the high-profile anti-fur ads in Great Britain, against Inuit and Dene societies' claims for a livelihood based on the selling and trading, consumption and production of animal fur.

The fetishization of fur, Emberley shows, extends from early modern paintings and etchings to late nineteenth-century literary and psychoanalytical narratives of sexual fantasy, such as von Sacher-Masoch's novel Venus in Furs. Contemporary advertising and fashion photography, as well as films such as Paris is Burning reveal the ongoing fetishistic practices of the fashion world. From colonial fur trading to twentieth-century globalization of the fur industry, Emberley analyzes the cultural, political, material, and libidinal values ascribed to fur.


During the 1980s the fur-trapping and fashion industries came under increasing criticism from animal rights activists and animal welfare organizations for the cruel procedures used to obtain furs. Profit margins in the fur industry plummeted. Fashion designers and advertisers created new ways of disguising furs, confounding the boundary between real and fake. While environmentalists cast "fur" as the lead character in an ecological tragedy, the fashion apparatus reacted with all its powers of artifice to resituate fur as a figure of dissimulation, as far removed from "nature" as any commodity could be. Moral agendas and processes of conimodification seemed directly at odds with each other, the one substantiating the need to protect animals, the other ruthlessly exploiting their exchange value.

The relationship between the environmental struggle and the fur fashion industry is not, however, as oppositional as it appears. Anyone interested in the environment, for example, must be concerned with what constitutes "nature" or the "natural," in other words, what social, political, discursive, and economic forces construct "nature" in general and fur specifically as a proper object around which to mount a political pro-ecology campaign. Producing nature is not an inexpensive enterprise. The "green" marketplace can be as demanding as any other commodity system of exchange. High investments in media and advertising, along with the production of ecologically correct consumables, have contributed to an aesthetization of this expression of political justice. Concurrently, fur fashion ideologues have as much at stake in the values and meanings ascribed to fur, for an ideology of artifice needs an already known discourse of nature from which to dissociate itself. The attack on fur brought substance, content, and social significance to fur fashions. They were no longer mere symbols of wealth, decadence, and prestige. Fur and fake-fur industries embraced the social discourse on nature precisely in order to have it subvert its own culture.

While a battle between commodities and dominant ideologies of nature and artifice occupied the media-infused public and political spheres during the anti-fur season of the 1980s, this symptom of social unrest took on a different significance for aboriginal trappers, Inuit fur fashion designers, and fur factory workers in the so-called Third World. Even bourgeois . . .

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