To be draped in dead animals feels the height of good taste

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The Independent Culture
IT STARTED unintentionally. I was in New York before Christmas, and there, in Bloomingdales, was the coat of my dreams; wonderfully plain, tapering a little, and with a huge fur collar. I put it on, and it was like love at first sight; I could hardly bear to take it off long enough to pay for it. "It's terribly clever, this stuff," a friend remarked, fingering the collar. "I wonder how they make it - it could be real."

A week or two later I was wearing it when I met a French friend of mine, an austere observer of the proprieties of dress. He complimented me on it. "And the collar - c'est du vison?" "No, no, it's fake," I said complacently. "That's not fake," he said, seizing it. "Look, look." And, brushing back the pile, he showed me what was, unarguably, an animal's pelt. Quite innocently, it seemed, in search of the perfect overcoat, I'd acquired the skins of two or three small animals, and hung them round my neck. It hadn't even occurred to me that it could be anything but fake.

I can't pretend ever to have felt very strongly about fur. But, all the same, one shrinks slightly from it. Perhaps it's a native protestantism, disliking the ostentatious flaunting of money; perhaps the decades of anti-fur campaigns have produced conditions in which the fur coat is simply not an option for anyone but the wives of footballers and the Russian Mafia.

A rough consensus has arisen, as the generation which wept buckets at 101 Dalmatians reached adulthood: leather shoes are all right, partly because cows are useful in other ways and partly because they are difficult to avoid. If you felt strongly about animal rights you might feel self- conscious about a pair of leather trousers. And other skins are more or less a no-no for anyone at all. To wear fur is tantamount to making a point in an argument.

And yet who has not felt a tiny twinge of envy for Cruella de Vil; who has not had to suppress the appalling but irresistible thought that, really, a coat made out of the skins of Dalmatian puppies might be rather a divine sort of object?

Certainly, going to countries where there is no widespread feeling against fur can produce shocking experiences. We've all seen those parties of Italian matrons, doing the great capitals of the world, and taking the opportunity to drape some sable over their shoulders. I always feel rather faint when I come across an entire room in the National Gallery filled with one of these groups, glowing with mink. It seems barbaric and ridiculous to swathe oneself in fur, and London is not often cold enough to justify it. And yet they have all, apparently, agreed to do it.

It's not, perhaps, quite so bad in colder climates. I have to admit that one winter, when I was in Berlin, I became so frustrated and miserable at the cold that I went out and bought a second-hand, man's fur coat. It's a wonderful thing, but not something you could wear comfortably in London. The Anglo-Saxon world has often found it hard to understand that the rest of the world hardly cares whether a lot of deeply unpleasant and vicious small animals live or die.

Moreover, there's an English notion of quiet good taste in dress, which is difficult to carry through if you look like Animal Hospital on legs. The rest of the world is more robustly indifferent to the rights of animals and, by and large, would prefer to display its money on its back than let it moulder away in a building-society account.

Certainly, one can't imagine those rich Italian matrons making much sense of the latest proposal from California. It has been suggested that anyone selling fur in Beverley Hills should be required by law to display the following, rather bloodcurdling notice: "This product is made with fur from animals that may have been killed by electrocution, gassing, neck- breaking, poisoning, clubbing, stomping or drowning and may have been trapped in steel-jaw, leg-hold traps."

It might have been drafted by Dickens's Fat Boy, wanting to make your flesh creep. Whether this is going to have much effect, if the law is passed, remains to be seen. Some of the young widows of Los Angeles would cheerfully club, stomp and electrocute the animals themselves if they absolutely had to. Not many people who own a mink coat are under the impression that the constituent parts led happy and fulfilled lives and passed away in their sleep at the age of 95 in mink years. Unless they are extremely stupid, they've decided not to care, and no number of gruesome statutory notices is likely to have much effect.

One has the slight sense that people are starting to drift back to fur; indeed, it's been striking that in the last few seasons, fur has been acquiring associations of Dark Ages opulence, and turning up in collections for men. As London Men's Fashion Week begins, it will be interesting to see who has started to show an interest in fur for hats, collars, trimmings, the whole works.

The truth is that the opposition to fur, in most people, sprang not from any burning ethical commitment, but from peer pressure. And when people get bored of hassling strangers in the street, it will start turning up again. We might prefer to think that the anti-fur decades have taken a moral standpoint, but that's not quite right; it's been much more dictated by taste. Or, to put it another way, it's just one more shift in fashion, which may very well shift back.

Meanwhile, I think I'm going to carry on wearing my coat from Bloomingdales; it's just too nice not to. And a very odd thing seems to be happening to my wardrobe; it is filling up with things made out of the skins of wee innocent beasties, and is starting to look like the party clothes of Vlad the Impaler.

Looking at shoes the other day, I just couldn't resist a pair in black python skin, and another in blond pony. But perhaps the whole thing is going a bit far. A girl I know asked me what the equestrian pair were made out of. "Cat," I said. She looked horrified but not, I fear, incredulous; she looked as if she thought it were just about possible.

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