I've never been all that impressed by mink. I had six great-aunts and every one of them had a mink. They weren't call-girls, they hadn't married into.money, they weren't the daughters of a marquess, they were none of them on the stage. They were fur machinists and had each decided at some point that they too should own a coat pieced together from those sad little rodents. Six aunts. Six minks.
Not only was the mink coat itself a status symbol in the Fifties and Sixties, so was its cut. Last year's model could be as bad as no mink at all. Rather as lesser women would alter the hemline of a dress, these doughty machinists could set to work turning last season's shawl-collar- double-cuff into a racy bracelet-length-half-belt-at-the-back. They wore them at every opportunity with hideous hats and a heavy dose of Je Reviens. Too mean to pamper their minks with the summer cold storage they required, their coats gave off an overpowering stench of mothballs. From a distance, family funerals were pure Hollywood - six lipsticked matrons in mink. Move in for a close-up and you'd be gassed by napathelene.
Harrods, which bottled out of selling fur in 1990, continued to offer cold storage for furs for several years but the falling demand put an end to this anomalous service. At pounds 50 a go it would probably work out cheaper to buy the coat its own fridge. No London department stores sell fur coats any more thanks to relentless campaigning by animal rights groups. The now-defunct Lynx started it with posters pointing out that it took 40 dumb animals to make a fur coat "but only one to wear it". Campaigners would stand outside Harrods barracking anyone in sable. It was a licence to shout abuse at rich women and the campaigners seized the opportunity with enthusiasm. The Eighties, which gave Porsche, Mont Blanc and Armani a licence to print money did no favours for what had for so long been the ultimate luxury item. The mink coat was on the run.
Many celebrities embraced the cause. Doris Day, Brigitte Bardot, numerous designers and more supermodels than you could shake a stick at announced that they had given up. Many celebrities took no notice at all. Sophia Loren trousered a cheque for pounds 2.25m from an Italian fur company in search of a figurehead. Other famous people still furred up are such trendsetters as the Queen, the Queen Mother (whose favourite pelts are apparently called Mary and Betty), Shirley Bassey and Barbara Cartland. The Queen took an old favourite out of mothballs for her trip to Russia in 1994 and rattled the cages of the animal rights activists.
There is a school of thought that believes that very old fur coats are all right; that the Queen's wedding present had been a long time dead and that no purpose would be served by giving it a decent burial.
PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) disagrees. PETA has a worldwide membership of around half a million. Most of them are.women over 35 although the age range stretches from a precociously aware six year old to vegans in their nineties. PETA's claim to fame was made up of posters featuring various supermodels in the raw, proclaiming "I'd rather go naked than wear fur". Even an old coat is, as the spokesperson put it "a coat of death perpetuating the image that fur is glamorous". So what is a girl to do with her motheaten stranded mink? "It should be used for anti fur demonstrations. If you must wear it, it should be painted with an image of the death of the animal that produced it''. Karl Lagerfeld take note.
PETA has tended to concentrate its energy on this small (albeit very visible) group of animal abusers. Wouldn't its campaign have had a greater impact on ordinary people if Christy Turlington had announced that she'd rather go naked than wear a leather jacket? That way men could share some of the guilt so liberally showered on women. Isn't there a danger that the struggle will be hijacked by a bunch of class war misogynists who get an excuse to threaten rich women? "Financially rich but morally and emotionally bankrupt" points out PETA, neatly. The organisation is determined to focus on this rather soft target because it sees a chance to drive home its advantage. "Fur is an issue we are definitely winning. The fundamental difference between leather and fur is that it is a by-product of the meat industry.'' They also claim that fewer lives are lost: "You can make three coats out of one cow [well, you can if you don't want sleeves] whereas it takes 80 chinchilla." Basically, much as they deplore the consumption of animals, the idea of scalping a living creature and then throwing away the insides away fills the PETA people with a special horror. Much of Europe, though, has yet to be convinced: Eastern Europe goes for the tog value but Southern Europe is still in the fur business for the glamour. PETA may claim that the animal rights lobby is on the march in Italy but the streets of Rome still look like a tarts convention. Seven-and-a-half million signoras own a fur coat (but then this is a nation that shoots thrushes for amusement).
Meanwhile, whatever anyone may say about fur being "back", the British fur industry is in a slow but terminal decline. There were an estimated 500 retail furriers in Britain in 1980; by 1992 there were only 57. The Fur Education Council did its best. There was a "Wear Your Fur Coat Day" in 1993,but they were fighting a losing battle. Besides which, the average British woman, whatever her ideological position, is reluctant to spend six grand on a coat she's too frightened to wear, even supposing she had that kind of money.
"In the past it was a status symbol provided by men'' claims a spokeswoman for the fur education council. "Today women buy their own furs." Or bits of them anyway. Rather than face the grief that goes with wearing full- length racoon in the streets, they opt instead for little bits of fluff which the passing animal activist may fail to spot. Even the saintly department stores that abandoned full-length chinchilla are now stocking the odd rabbit collared coat. This sneaky practice has been a shot in the arm for the fur trade whose other nice little earner has been the camouflaging of old skins. Mink-lined raincoats are a huge sideline. Your mother's old three-quarter length black glama can go undercover for around pounds 700 (including mac).
My great aunts were never reduced to this hole-in-the-corner business. Their own minks got the occasional airing as one by one they wore them to each other's funerals. By the time my mother needed a fur machinist to turn her own hard-earned mink inside out, they were either dead or past it. Tired of being spat at outside Harrods, tired of paying for the mink's annual summer vacation, my mother shoved the dratted thing into a cupboard. It's a pretty coat, lovingly crafted from the dead bodies of 40 little minks. Instead of warming and adorning the body of a woman who wouldn't buy a fur coat now but did buy one once, they just hang mouldering in a wardrobe just like thousands of others. Long dead as animals, they are now defunct even as garments. Ban the fur trade tomorrow by all means but what possible purpose is served by all those little mammals walled up in their mahogany graves? They should be worn - if only at funerals.
THE WORD ON THE STREET: WOMEN WHO WEAR FURS
Belgian tourist, (unwilling to give her name) in a wolf fur
I would not buy an artificial coat as it's not good for nature. Of course, it doesn't hurt animals, but producing synthetic materials causes more damage to the environment than producing natural furs. Many people are against fur because they've been indoctrinated that it's bad for the animals. They don't realise that these creatures are specially bred, like cows for steak.
Helena Crosby, graduate student, in a real fox fur
I bought this with some money I was left a couple of years ago. It's second-hand, and I'd like to say that makes it all right. But I do sometimes have spasms of guilt, and even feeling like Julie Christie in Doctor Zhivago can't completely get rid of them. If I bought a new coat, I think I'd definitely go fake.
Anne Sklar, American tourist, wearing mink
This is one of two genuine furs I bought in Virginia. Sure, I've bought fakes in the past and I'd consider it again, but you can't deny that real furs are both prettier and warmer. I hope you're not going to pour paint over me. Are you?
Miranda Husband, legal secretary, in a fake fur
The only animal rights I'm violating are teddy bear rights, which is how it should be. Even if you don't believe killing animals is cruel, there's got to be something obscene about spending several thousand pounds on one item of clothing.
June Knott, an English ex-pat visiting from New York, in a fake fur
I got this half an hour ago in a sale because I liked the look of it, but at home I do have a real one. Last year in New York, they seemed very anti-fur. This year, though, the fur boom seems to be back. There does seem to be a different attitude to fur over there. They're not as paranoid about wearing the genuine article. A lot of people buy it. They have to. It's bloody freezing.