The question for all dedicated followers of fashion: can they stomach the rage for fur?

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Luxurious, expensive, indulgent fur. Despite a decade of successful campaigning by animal rights groups to wipe fur from the face of fashion, the designer stores of London, Paris and New York are again dripping with it.

Luxurious, expensive, indulgent fur. Despite a decade of successful campaigning by animal rights groups to wipe fur from the face of fashion, the designer stores of London, Paris and New York are again dripping with it.

Its been eight months since the pelt's big-time return to the catwalks in the international autumn/winter collections, and it might as well be the old Fifties "glory" days of shameless mink and sable. Back then fur came full length, thick and ostentatious. Given that the relentless campaign by hard-line animals-rights groups made fur the ultimate in shameful fashion, its comeback might have been expected to be creeping and rather quiet.

But, coinciding with last season's "rich bitch" theme, fur is once again luxurious, full-length, showy and utterly ubiquitous. It's the principle material on coats, skirts, singlets and little jackets, and the trim on almost any garment. What became so unsexy and even murderous, now dominates the advertisements in Vogue's international editions.

The big question is will consumers - particularly in Britain, where the anti-fur campaign has been so phenomenally successful - put devotion to fashion before conscience and follow the legion of big-name designers now defying the anti-fur lobby? Stella McCartney may have turned down a job with Gucci, to avoid working with fur and leather, but her stand is an increasingly lonely one.

Yesterday the People for the Ethical treatment of Animals (Peta), the US-based animal-rights group that spent the Nineties splattering catwalks with red paint in protest against fur clothing, tried to play down the fight back by designers and the fur trade. UK spokesman Andrew Butler said it would have no impact on British consumers despite the "desperate efforts" of the fur industry.

"Fur never left the catwalk," he said. "But that has not translated into sales in stores. The public are very aware now of the suffering of animals though there are clearly a number of designers out there who are not nice people and continue to parade pelts down the catwalk."

Mr Bulter argues that the sinners are mainly older designers but in fact more young designers are being encouraged back to fur by the trade.

He claims wearing fur in Britain is now so rare that last year Peta had to turn its advertising campaign on less-enlightened tourists visiting London. Fur sales, he claims, are down even in Russia. The British Fur Trade Association hotly disputes those figures, insisting that fur is maintaining its market position and would do even better if people did not feel so intimidated by animal-rights campaigners. Though it insists it has won the battle, Peta says it cannot be complacent. "There are always new generations to convince," says Butler.

Even if fur does regain some foothold, that is unlikely to extend beyond the rich. Fur has always been a luxury item but now money is not the only obstacle to the mass market. Even if you are brave enough to risk hostility by wearing fur in public, many department stores now have an anti fur policy. Cost and anti-fur campaigning means that fake fur dominates the cheaper stores.

That the battle for hearts and minds is not over is evident, whatever Peta and the fur industry say. Yesterday the campaign group Respect for Animals was protesting outside the Museum of London against a new exhibition, Stolen Skins? Fur in Fashion, which aims to put the current battle about fur into an historical context.

The exhibition traces anti-fur protest in Britain back to 1892 when the Humanitarian League, led by Henry Salt, campaigned against the abuse of animals in food, fashion, sport and science. The museum also shows that there was public disquiet about fur even in the 17th century when prints by Wenceslas Hollar made the plea on behalf of fur-wearing women that "the cold, not cruelty, makes her weare/In winter furrs and Wild beasts haire."

The recruitment of celebrities by animal campaign groups is also nothing new. At the end of the 19th century the writer John Galsworthy was campaigning against the use of feathers in fashion.

Curator Edwina Ehrman said the exhibition had been prompted by the predominance of fur in this year's winter fashions and aimed to ask whether the public should follow the designer trend. As part of her research Ms Ehrman visited a number of designer shops in London's West End and was "surprised" to see so much fur once again on offer. The exhibition includes some purchases from those West End stores.

The exhibition aims to be "neutral" and gives visitors the opportunity to vote for or against wearing fur. But its attempts to sit on the fence have proved futile. The Respect for Animal protesters, dressed in fake fur coats with the letters "Shame" emblazoned on their backs, complained the exhibition fails to expose the "full horror" of the fur trade. The blood and gore is being handed out in leaflets to museum visitors by protesters. Andrew Butler says: "Without people seeing blood and guts I don't think it sinks in."

Ehrman said yesterday that while aiming to show "both sides of this emotive and controversial issue", the museum also did not want to display images that might upset children.

Animal rights groups insist they are winning the war against fur in Britain and point out that legislation that will ban fur farming in Britain is in its final stages in parliament. Peta says it's confidence that it has won on fur, shows in its redirection of its efforts against leather. But some predict that expansion of the campaign may backfire on them. People may be less willing to give up everyday commonplace affordable leather than they were to forsake fur. And once they have questioned the campaign against leather, they may look at fur with fresh eyes.

And designers are obviously already becoming ambivalent. Independent designer Claire Zambuni does not work with, or wear, fur "from personal choice" but increasingly feels that the hard-line message from animal rights groups obscures the complexity of the fur issue.

Zambuni now feels that the animal rights groups have got the issue out of proportion, particularly now that there are questions about the environmental impact of the chemicals used to make fake fur.

And the lure of fur, she says, endures, even among those who would, as yet, not use it. "Its simply just so stunning and luxurious."