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