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.
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