Fur and the Older Woman in the 1920s

As I learned during a winter in Moscow with a borrowed muskrat coat, the primary reason to wear fur is to keep warm.  But in advice literature aimed at older women, fur was said to possess additional magic features.  Its texture brought a softness to the face and its expense signaled that the older woman had the means to buy something nice for herself.

These photos come from the 1920s, a period when fur became widely popular. Probably because it was the least expensive option, I have seen fur most often as collars on coats. Both the younger and older women in the photo above might have fur collars, but it is much easier to see on Mrs. Allcorn’s plaid clutch coat.

Sometimes the coats included fur cuffs as well, as in this 1925 photo of a mother and daughter.

Fur pieces (then called fur scarves) were very popular in the 1920s. “The entire animal came complete with legs, a tail, and a head featuring beady glass eyes and a spring tension mouth,” writes fashion historian Ellie Laubner. “Furs were nonchalantly draped over the shoulder of a dress or suit. They could then be fastened by snapping two of the feet together or by squeezing the clothespin style mouth to make the animal grip its leg.” (Fashions of the Roaring Twenties, 80) My grandmother was still wearing this style in the late 1940s.

The most expensive option was a full fur coat, a big ticket wardrobe item.  This 1929 photo of eighty year old Mrs. Augusta Day shows her adorned in some kind of plush fur from her head to below her knees.

Although fur was certainly not the prerogative of the older crowd, gatherings of well off older women with the time to join clubs sometimes could look like a fur convention.  This photo of a Women’s Christian Temperance Union gathering in 1922 shows fur in all its manifestations in collars, neck pieces, and full coats.  The women without fur look somewhat underdressed.

Women without much money could pick furs of lesser value.  I discovered that muskrat was the budget choice in the 1920s.  It might not be fancy, but I can testify that it stands up to a Russian winter.

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3 Responses to Fur and the Older Woman in the 1920s

  1. I always observed a kind of progression in coats in Russia as the weather temperatures dropped. In early to mid September, women started wearing long woolen coats with a hood attached. Sometimes these had a heavy quilted lining, but mostly not. When temps dropped further in mid to late October, women pulled out their Sherpa coats–the suede outer, wooly lined coats with hoods. (Sort of like wearing an Ugg as a coat). Women unable to afford furs would wear these coats the rest of the winter, but for the woman who owned a fur, the next temperature dip would bring out the furs. So many different types, colors, styles. The profusion was really something to see. Oh, and the fur-lined hats too. Both men and women wore them. The women’s styles varied some, but the men almost all wore the type that the ear flaps tie on top of the hat, so they can be worn with the flaps up or down. The nicer ones have real fox fur, but there were plenty of faux fur options to be had at the markets. Women’s hats were sometimes of the men’s sort, but I also saw leather skull caps lined with fox fur around the edge, or felt pillbox type hats with a fur edge.

    My first winter in Russia, I came with a Navy peacoat that proved totally inadequate by mid-October. My Russian host mama loaned me her old fur coat for a few weeks while I hunted for something more appropriate in the shops. I not-so-affectionately called it The Beast, as I hated wearing it, but I couldn’t deny that it was warm! I was so thrilled to find an ankle-length, woolen, heavy-quilted lined coat with a hood at the end of that month. It was the last shop I’d looked, when I was starting to despair of finding something I could afford (I was a VERY poor college student at the time). When I got home with that coat that day, I nonchalantly hung it in the hall closet, and went about my day, studying, etc. When mama got home, she squealed with delight, yelled at me to come try it on to show her, and then spent the rest of the evening on the phone to all her friends to tell them about my new coat. (She had a very high pitched voice, so the whole thing was loud and piercing). It was hilarious and heartwarming at the same time. We weren’t always able to communicate well (her English was almost non-existent and my Russian was pretty shaky), but I always felt that she cared for me. I miss her a lot.

  2. Writing about furs and feathers in the book A Perfect Fit, by Jenna Weissman Joselit, answered a question I’d been wondering about: How was it possible that photos of the 1930s — the Great Depression — showed so many ordinary women (like secretaries and typists) wearing furs? The answer illustrates the problem of unintended consequences: to eliminate the cruelty of steel-jawed traps, fur farming was encouraged as a more humane solution. “In 1917, there were only four fur farms in the entire United States; by 1930, there were more than forty-five hundred.” This drove down the price of furs — and millions of animals were raised for slaughter. On the positive side, she shows how the campaign against wearing birds and feathers on hats empowered the Audubon Society….

  3. Oops — I should have written “Writing about furs and feathers in the book A Perfect Fit, Jenna Weissman Joselit answered a question I’d been wondering about….” She also writes chapters about thrift shops, the immigrant experience, sewing classes in the 1930s — A good read!

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