By Lauren R., Summer Student
While helping to create the The Vintage Catwalk exhibit, I had the unique experience to assist with the installation of three artefact cases, one of which was our ethics case. The case is a conversation point to inform and discuss the use of animal furs to make fashion wear in the past. The case also acts as a talking point for the impacts that furs had on the people who worked with them. One of the pieces included in the display is a 4-foot-long silver fox stole, circa 1905, face, feet and tail all still attached. One of the most interesting things about this piece though, aside from is striking colour and alarming size, is the tag that is stitched into the underside of it. It reads Holt Renfrew Co. Quebec, Toronto, Montreal, Winnipeg. In my opinion there are two fantastic facets to the pelt. The first is company that produced the piece. The second is the type of fur that was used to create the stole.
The reason that the tag on the pelt is so interesting is because the company who produced it is still active today; this affords the visitors a link between the past and the present. The Holt Renfrew fashion house has a rich history. It was established in 1837 and began as a millinery shop. The company quickly gained recognition as they began providing product for renowned customers, one of which was Queen Victoria. A little less than a 100 years later, in 1930, the company was forging ties and creating exclusive deals with top fashion houses across Europe. In 1986 the company was brought under new ownership having been purchased by W. Galen Weston and the Hon. Hilary M. Weston, who are still in possession of the company today. Since then Holt Renfrew has been considered one of the top purveyors of luxury goods in Canada. The company has flagship stores in Toronto, Quebec and Vancouver. This once tiny millinery company now has sales that exceed $1 million a year and is managed by a group known as Selfridges Group Limited.
As mentioned before, not only is the stole’s manufacturer of interest, the fur used to make the stole has a rich history. As mentioned before the stole is made from an animal known as the silver fox; this is a variation of the red fox breed (Vulpes vulpes). More accurately, it is the melanistic version of the animal. This mutation of the red fox has a coat colour that varies from a deep bluish grey to an ash grey. They also have darker black markings than their red counterparts. In addition, the silver fox is more cautious than their red cousins. It is estimated that 8% of Canada’s red fox population consists of the grey fox variant.
Due to their rarity and striking colouring, the silver fox has been hunted through history as a material for luxury good making. Silver fox fur products have been worn by nobles in Russia, China and Western Europe. The furs were once considered so valuable by New English fur-traders that the price of one silver fox pelt could be equivalent to that of 40 beaver furs. The value of the pelt also depends on the weights of the pelt (often more than one pound, the price increases with the weight). The colouring of the fur can affect the price as well.
Since the fur business was so lucrative, it is no surprise that people soon began breeding foxes for their coats. The earliest fox-farm appeared in Prince Edward Island in 1895 and was started by Sir Charles Daton and Robert Oulton after they had found a pair of orphaned foxes and ‘adopted’ them. The industry was soon booming, and by 1913 there were 277 fox-farms in PEI, and the number soon grew to 448 by 1923. By the 1920s, the fox stole had become incredibly popular and when purchasing one, a person could expect to pay between $350 – $1000. There was also the option to buy shares in breeding pairs or to purchase the breeding pair. A pair of breeding foxes could cost between $18,000 and $35,000.
The area of fox-farming eventually expanded into Nova Scotia, Newfoundland & Labrador, Prince Edward Island, Quebec, Ontario and some parts of the prairies. Today the fur-farming industry contributes $78 million to Canada’s economy annually. In addition to this, 75% of the furs produced in Canada come from fur-farming. Canada has an international reputation for producing quality fur products, providing pine martin, mink, raccoon, fox and lynx to the fashion industry. Today the two most popular types of fur are mink (a classic staple in the fashion world) and fox (a fur that changes popularity with the fashion tastes of the time). While the fox stole talked about here is one piece, some of the mink stoles can be two pieces long; a full-length fox coat can take between 10 – 24 foxes to make, and a full-length mink coat can take 60 minks to produce.
Though the use of furs for fashion purposes is now the source of much ethical debate, I believe it is still important to address the history with an informed eye. Looking at both the glamorous and the grotesque helps us to understand where we as a collective have come from and to inform our actions and decisions for the future, to aid us in learning, growing, becoming better.