Fur clothing history – a brief introduction

Ages before fur clothing became fashionable its use was a matter of survival. The first garments that men (or early modern humans, the Cro-Magnon) produced were likely made of animal fur and hides, some 40,000 years ago, to protect themselves from low temperatures. Although archaeologists haven’t found garments that old as materials are more perishable, there are other evidence, like beads and teeth that could have been part of clothing found in a 28,000-year-old Homo sapiens grave in Sungir, Russia, and a 20,000-year-old bone needle that would have been likely used to make clothes, to name a few. It is believed that the Cro-Magnon also developed pointed tools, which would be used to punch holes in animal skins to lace them together and form garments like tunics, for instance.

One of the best and oldest evidences of animal fur and leather use is Otzi, the iceman, a mummy found in the European glaciers in 1991 which was preserved in ice for over 5,300 years with different parts of his clothing. Most of his garments were made of animal skin, like goat and sheepskin coat, goatskin leggings, bear fur hat, and sheepskin loincloth.

Otzi the iceman - credit National Geographic magazine

Reconstruction of Otzi, the iceman – 5300 years of history preserved in ice (photo: National Geographic magazine)

Animal pelts, fur and leather were some of the main garment materials for their durability and warmth, a necessity for colder climates, but in some earlier societies there was also the belief in the “contagious magic”, meaning that the virtues associated with different animals (fearlessness, virility, prowess, etc.) would be assimilated by a person wearing their skins.

Fur clothing has also been used to separate the ruling class from the commoners in some earlier societies. For instance, in 3000 BC, the Egyptians declared the use of leopard and lion skin exclusive to kings and high priests in ceremonies. In the 13th century, in France, it was created a Royal Ordinance that made ermine and vair (a kind of squirrel from Eurasia) fur clothes exclusive to the Royal family and aristocracy.

In those days, fur and pelts were mostly harvested from the wild, but demand continued to grow both for its status as for its warmth, promoting the expansion of the fur market with new trading routes, new techniques development and production intensification. Since late 1800s, the hunted pelts supply became short for the market’s demand, so many species started being farmed.

With fur farming development throughout the last century specific rules for the industry were developed to guarantee animal welfare and environmental best practice. Unfortunately there are still a lot of fur companies worldwide that don’t practice sustainable fur harvesting (using polluting dyes and chemicals) and respect of animals, so it is advisable to check the origin of fur products before buying them.

There are still wild fur harvesters, especially in countries like New Zealand, where there are several non-native animal species, like possum, rabbit and deer, which were introduced in the local environment and represent harm to native fauna and flora, and agriculture. Still, even for wild animal furriers there are a set of rules for responsible animal fur recovery, to promote humane fur harvesting techniques and best practices for the environment.