Book Review: The Cultural Politics of Fur

Fur is in, let’s face it. And it’s controversial. With many designers and celebrities passionately advocating or denouncing it (think GaGa’s dead Kermit outfit), PETA targeting high-profile designers like Michael Kors and Isaac “All I want to do is wear fur pants!” Mizrahi, and the United States Humane Society loudly exposing the false labeling of raccoon dog hides as faux, the debate about fur has far from abated. The issue runs deeper than animal rights, however, and fur’s connotations with fetishism, feminism and functionality are pervasive and date back hundreds of years. The Cultural Politics of Fur is an academic account of the many social dimensions of this notorious commodity, a fashion as old as our species.

The book is framed by contemporary discussions of fur, covering fur-related campaigns (Diesel advertising for and Lynx protesting against), its role as the main source of income for First Nations peoples, and the symbolic implications of women wearing fur fashions. The majority of the text, however, is devoted to history, discussing sumptuary legislations about fur and its representations in fine art prior to the 19th century, as well as to the masochistic connotations of fur fetishism, especially in Venus in Furs. In these sections, Emberley frequently wanders onto topics that are barely relevant to her discussions of fur, such as object representation in fine art, the historical shift in the image-text relationship during the 20th century, and the exclusion of First Nations people from organized labour. While these topics are applicable, too much time is spent on extraneous details, and the book begins to feel long and disjointed. Specific films like The Joyless Street and Paris is Burning are used illustrate certain points, but when Emberley relays every detail and plotline I began to think her arguments would stand better on their own.

Aside from these self-indulgent ramblings, Emberley sheds light on feminist perspectives of fur’s connotations throughout history. Since commodities like fur denote decadence and wealth, affluent women seek to gain symbolic agency through conspicuous consumption, but this can also disempower the majority of women as the positions they aspire to become are increasingly associated with narcissism and compliance to social norms. She notes that “it is one of the contradictory aspects of symbolic agency that the price to be paid for symbolic power is continuing representation by cultural studies theorists and advertising agencies alike of the female bourgeois woman as passive, stupid – and spectacularly so.” Emberley argues that when women rely on material objects for power, they situate themselves and their bodies as commodities, items to be traded in a “libidinal exchange.” It is not only those who advocate and wear fur who perpetuate this cycle, but also anti-fur campaigners like Lynx that target mostly white, bourgeois women with slogans like “It takes up to 40 dumb animals to make a fur coat. But only one to wear it.” Although Lynx is now extinct, PETA has recently been using similar techniques and recruiting celebrities for their “I’d rather go naked than wear fur” and “I always fake it” campaigns.

I would have liked a bit more modern context for the arguments in The Cultural Politics of Fur, as I felt that too much of the book was spent on minor details with little contemporary relevance. Fur is a passionately divisive subject, and while skimming discussion boards for this piece it became pretty obvious that the majority of advocates for either side are misinformed (“It is a myth that the fur industry kills live animals!”). An all-encompassing text like this could be very useful if it was brought up-to-date and made more accessible.

The Cultural Politics of Fur by Julia V. Emberley, McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1997

Reviewed by Jenny Knoll
Photos by Todd Bolton

4 thoughts on “Book Review: The Cultural Politics of Fur

  1. Great review and an interesting topic. And because I just watched Isaac Mizrahi in ‘Unzipped’, I feel the need to quote that line in full: “All I want to do is fur pants, but I know, like if I do them, I will be stoned off of Seventh Avenue, like some wanton heretic or something. So there won’t be any fur pants coming down my runway. It’s about women not wanting to look like cows or something. When, really, there’s something very charming about cows, but whatever.”

  2. The book sounds very interesting, but I agree that it would be better if it were more current. I have some vintage fur trimmed things that I purchased convincing myself that “old fur” is better to reuse than dispose of, but I always feel so self-conscious anytime I wear it that I usually take the fur collar or whatever off and store it in a drawer. I do think it is beautiful but would never ever by new fur.

  3. I just read the linked story about the Raccoon Dogs – good god. I am continually disgusted at the evidence that luxury brands are anything but, embracing cheap manufacture and questionable methods while still charging prices that would suggest quality goods. So much for “you get what you pay for.” The fact is, as long as we accept designer goods as a measure of status, we’re idiots and we deserve what we pay for.


  4. It’s great that the book is delving into the feminist connotations of fur-wearing. I read a lot of blogs and online fashion journals written by obviously well-off young women wearing entirely impractical and, occasionally, offensive items (such as fur, snake skin, etc). I can see that these ladies are simply very passionate about fashion, and understandably hold their image as a “fashionable person” very highly – so much so, however, that they’ve probably never even considered the “power” they feel from creating a “fierce” outfit actually runs the risk of pigeon-holing them into the branded representation of a “passive, stupid female bourgeois”. thus, for the majority of the population out there, they are either completely non-relatable and excessive or they are objectified by the male gaze, thus becoming entirely powerLESS and not very fierce at all.

    What a great topic that covers so much ground… I’m loving it! Thanks for putting this challenge out there to all us fashion-lovers!

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