fur coats

FROM MILES DAVIS TO CAM’RON: THE COMPLEX HISTORY OF FUR, FASHION & MUSIC

FROM MILES DAVIS TO CAM’RON: THE COMPLEX HISTORY OF FUR, FASHION & MUSIC

by Christopher Kelly
8 min
fur coats
Beyonce ©

Throughout history, the ‘spoils of war’ peacocking of the rich and famous has resulted in the tragic adoption of real fur as a status symbol that places greater emphasis on the plush and pompous than the plight of animal cruelty. If fortune favours the brave then real fur favours the boastful and the blowhard as anyone willing to wear real fur in today’s fashion environment is beyond the city limits of self-obsessed. That being said, the advantage of perspective is that we can peer back through fashion history to figure out how masons of Mink coats became tailors to some of the biggest musical, political and fashion icons of the last centuries and understand how faux-fur and other conscious substitutes have allowed the peacocking trend to pervade contemporary hip-hop and luxury culture. 

Hopefully, long gone are the days where killing it in one’s career meant that you had to be literally killing in one’s wardrobe. So, from King and Queens sat atop thrones and castles of bygone eras to the Kings and Queens sat atop the Billboard Hot 100 chart today, we are looking back on the connotations and connoisseurs of fur to question how the fashion industry is transitioning to fit the modern disdain for all things fur.

fur coats

THE EARLIEST DAYS OF FUR IN FASHION
Fur’s association with the highest echelon of society began in Ancient Egypt where leopard skins were reserved exclusively for the royal family and high priests before the British nobility adopted the same ritual in the thirteenth century. Royal proclamations were decreed that escribed the usage of expensive furs like fox and ermine exclusively to the aristocracy, literally mandating that fur was a material only worthy of the well-to-do and woefully wealthy. As is tradition with the elitist nature of capitalism, anything that becomes unobtainable to the masses becomes the fixation of their obsessions and desires, therefore first establishing fur as a visual indicator of the wealth disparity between rich and poor. 

This relationship pretty much held true for the next six hundred years until at the turn of the twentieth century when the fur coat became more accessible to the everyday man as production and processes became cheaper. Whilst this tragical means that the culling of animals for fur coats essentially became more efficient, it did allow for the first steps toward lessening such idolisation of non-egalitarian fashion choices. In the 1920s, preppy teens at American Ivy League Schools adopted the full length ‘racoon’ coat as the football sideline outfit of choice as manufacturers began targeting this still elitist and by no means working-class demographic. This relationship between wealthy white college kids and the Racoon coat resulted in the earliest intersection of fur and music as the singer George Olsen dropped the single ‘Doing The Racoon’ in 1929 to commemorate his affluent days decked in gaudy rodent drapery.

1920s fur

FUR IN JAZZ, MOTOWN & ROCK ‘N ROLL
However, it wasn’t till the sultry sonics and honey tones of black musicians like Miles Davis, Sammy Davis Jr and Lee Morgan hit the airwaves that fur became synonymous with the smooth crooners of the 1930s Jazz and Swing era. Indeed the fur long coat draped across the collars of Jazz artists like Duke Ellington and later Motown singers like Diana Ross & The Supremes became as iconic as the sole white gardenia so often delicately placed in Billie Holiday’s hair. Jazz really became the first canvas through which musical artistry and creativity in clothing comprised competing parts of what made artists successful, beloved and widely worshipped. Jazz artists imbued their character in their clothing just as equally as they did in their free-flowing and spiritual concertos and compositions. 

The importance and deliberateness with which black musicians curated their dress is demonstrated by the late great pianist Mary Lou Williams who kept the receipt for every clothing purchase and garment maintenance she made in her career from 1930-1980, among them many fur coats, a collection of which now reside in the Institue of Jazz at Rutgers University. Unlike the earliest days of fur as a symbol of strict legislation widening the visual disparity between rich and poor, Jazz artists used fashion and fur to obtain greater freedom, protest the segregation of style and reclaim the financial success and recognition that had purposefully been denied to them. 

Terry O’Neill mick jagger fur
Terry O’Neill ©

As rock began to adopt all elements of Jazz, Blues and Swing culture, fur coasts became a staple stolen element alongside the choreography and song construction techniques first adopted by black artists. Famously, a young Mick Jagger became a prominent proponent of the fur coat as the decadent dress and textures of double-breasted suits, silks, furs and heeled boots became their calling card. Just like the larger than life characters in the US Jazz seen had used clothing such as furs to build a suave mysticism around them, The Rolling Stones and later Glam-Rock artists like David Bowie embraced the perceived femininity of luxury fashion in British culture to challenge ideas of class-based fashion norms.

kanye snoop fur
Wireimage ©

FAUX FUR & HIP-HOP
It seems as if music and fur have often been entangled in this dance of either reclaiming what was once only aspirational or rejecting any notion that fashion and fur should be reserved for the rich. However, both these notions place an understanding on fur as being something of worth to someone. So what happened to the traditional power symbol of fur when society collectively decides that fur shouldn’t be viewed as something to admire, adorn or own? How do musicians change their aesthetic to match the new materials being manufactured to replace fur altogether? 

Following the 1970s animal activism movement and the ensuing enactment of the Endangered Species Act of 1973, vast protests and campaigns against the use of fur resulted in the eventual evolution of faux-fur. No small part of which is down to the smash 1994 PETA campaign by Naomi Campbell and Cindy Crawford that saw the two modelling icons pose nude with the slogan ‘I’d rather be naked than wear fur’.  However, as is perhaps best symbolised by Naomi’s decision to style real fur numerous times after that campaign, the widespread roots of fur across many industries made it impossible for activists to remove all associations at one time. 

ysl fur naomi campbell
Yves Saint Laurent ©

As modern rockstars became rappers, many white people moved on from styling fur coats, not for any humanitarian reason, but rather because blaxploitation movies like ‘Willie Dynamite’ and ‘the Mack’ began stereotyping young black men in fur coats as pimps or hustlers. When Hip-Hop became the dominant genre of the 90’s rappers began plugging their extensive fur collections, either as a character-building quality like their Jazz ancestors had done or as a ‘F*ck You’ rebuke of the racist depictions of blaxploitation movies. Either way, the Cam’ron and The Diplomats era of music and fashion was among us and the fur coat was once again baptises in the baselines of a new genre. The lavish oversized fur in the ‘My Hood’ music video was the perfect precursor to the infamous pink fur snapped by paparazzi at New York Fashion Week the week following the release of the video. Cam was unquestionably the undisputed king of contemporary fur coats, that is as long as you don’t ask P Diddy.

cam'ron pink fur
Cam'ron ©

In more recent years, fur whether it be Faux or not has continued to grab the spotlight in key moments of music history or adorned by music biggest stars such as Rick Ross wearing white fur to the BET Awards in 2012. Similarly, Justin Bieber received huge criticism for styling a huge fur coat in the icy temperature of LA’s 65 degree winters, Drake decked a fur coat for his Views album launch shoot with Vogue, and everyone from Migos to Harry Styles has been caught or intentionally spotted wearing some form of fur ensemble. However, with countless brands like Gucci and Coach abandoning fur entirely, the desire for superstars to style fur is dwindling as it simply just isn’t the status symbol it once was. From fast-fashion retailersto luxury fashion houses, there are plenty of faux-fur options that can emulate the same Slick Rick swagger of countless classic musicians from music history. So whether you are a literal King and Queen or a spiritual one, in today’s information environment there is no excuse to be rocking real fur. But, remember not to judge or scorn those cultures and communities of the past that simply wanted to wear what for so long they were told they weren’t good enough to. 

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