In an article for History Today, Carol Dyhouse, the author of Glamour: Women, History, Feminism, chronicles the rise and fall of different sorts of fur as the symbols of feminine luxury, particularly in Britain. Particularly interesting is the way mink suddenly replaced fox after World War II:
Instead mink became the fur most coveted by women. J.G. Links, son of the furrier Calman Links, mused on the fickleness of fashion in this respect. Gone were the days ‘when a hundred thousand silver foxes alone would be offered for sale and eagerly competed for in one London auction alone’, he wrote. Red fox was now deemed just about unsaleable and he found it incredible ‘that a Kamchatka red fox, with its deep golden-red colouring like a Turner sunset, and its caressing, sensuous fur, should today find no buyers at fewer shillings than I used to pay pounds for it’. By the 1950s Links estimated that sales of mink were worth three to four times as much in money terms as all other furs put together. Some six million mink were being ‘produced’ annually by this time.
Now, of course, the market for mink has all but collapsed. When my mother-in-law asked about possibly selling her own mother's mink stole on eBay a few years ago, I had to break the news that it was worth less than $200 (probably considerably less, judging from current listings). People often assume that has something to do with the animal rights movement, but Dyhouse suggests the shift is less about ideology and more about pure fashion.
Fur was falling from favour well before the activism of the 1980s. In the late 1950s the price of mink fell dramatically. The cost of manufacturing a mink coat now exceeded that of the raw materials and there were many in the trade who felt that the luxury status of fur was becoming a thing of the past. Demand began to fall. The widespread adoption of central heating no doubt played some part: in bitter cold, nothing keeps you warm like natural fur. But the truth was that the fur coat, once the epitome of glamour and luxury, acquired unfashionable connotations from the 1960s. It signified an older, less trendy and more dependent kind of femininity. The urbane and discreet Links had insisted that most furs were bought by husbands for their wives and not for their mistresses. But in the popular mind the fur coat had come to signify hussies on the make or the kept woman.
This had little appeal for the young woman of the 1960s. When she rose to television fame as a popular singer in the 1950s, Alma Cogan had celebrated by buying two silver blue mink coats, one for herself and the other for her mother. She had offered to buy one for her younger sister, Sandra, too, but Sandra had demurred. She wanted to be seen as a serious actress ‘and a sort of beatnik’, she recorded, and she insisted on a duffel coat instead. Fur was a dying trend. Fur coats, once lovingly consigned to ‘cold storage’ facilities in department stores in summer, went to the back of the wardrobe instead. Many found their way to flea-markets or car-boot sales in the new millennium.
In the U.S. at least, I don't think furs signified hussies or kept women, but they definitely signified a doting man, rather than means of your own. Mad Men played with this in Don Draper's early ad, starring Betty, with its caption, "Why Wait for a Man to Buy You a Fur Coat?"
As an evocative image of indulgent feminine luxury, the fur coat has been replaced by something less tangible, which women often buy for themselves. Look below for a photo.