Barbra Streisand in furs, 1969

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How Fur and Feathers Went in and out of Fashion

And what it had to do with the Jews

Jenna Weissman Joselit
January 29, 2024
Barbra Streisand in furs, 1969

Getty Images

Baby, it’s cold outside, but there’s hardly a fur coat to be seen. Not too long ago, when the temperature dropped below 40 degrees, the urban street, especially in the Big Apple, was filled with a “procession of wild beasts,” or so the Ladies’ Home Journal imaginatively put it. But of late, fur coats seem to have vanished, or at least gone into hibernation.

The sartorial practice, though somewhat attenuated, still persists in colder regions of the country where nothing else, not even the puffiest of down coats, is as effective as fur in warding off the blasts of winter. It also continues to exert a pull on some affluent Orthodox Jewish communities where, come Shabbat morning (or so my trusty informants tell me), a number of women congregants sport a fur coat, though, arguably, not nearly as many do as only a decade or so earlier. Otherwise, the ranks of the fur fancier have noticeably thinned. In this part of the world, the wearing of fur is de trop. No longer the mark of material success or of aspiration, it’s frowned upon, even anathematized.

A steady drop in the number of local fur salons is yet another telltale index of fur’s declining popularity. After being in business at Broadway and 81st Street for over 50 years, Robert Payne Furs closed its doors on the Upper West Side in 1990, the last of what had once been 22 (!) fur shops between 72nd and 86th streets, one and sometimes two per block.

A shadow of its former self, fur’s fall from grace attests not only to the vagaries of fashion—what’s in and what’s out—but also to the capacity of consumer-oriented social movements at the grass roots to effect change by taking on even the mightiest of economic and cultural forces such as the once-invincible Dame Fashion. “A president can be deposed, an autocrat can be assassinated, but against the tyrant Fashion neither votes nor bombs are weapons,” thundered the Independent as early as 1905, well before the prospect of cutting fashion down to size had become a reality.

For years, efforts to draw attention to the cruel practices of breeding, killing, and then the wearing of animals for their fur sputtered rather than took off. In the spring of 1923, for instance, a “new craze” for lightweight summer furs threatened “doom” for America’s wildlife, prompting The New York Times to wonder whether “on the fur question is the modern woman more deadly than the fur-clad caveman?” Will she resist the “demands of vanity, selfishness, and greed, made in the sacred name of ‘fashion?’” Only time will tell, concluded the paper, hoping that right-thinking women would come to their senses and free themselves from their fidelity to Dame Fashion by taking measures to arrest what increasingly appeared to be the close of the “Age of Mammals.” Ultimately, the summer fur went the way of all fads; a heightened conscience had little to do with it. The style had its day in the sun and that was that.

Fast forward to 1980, when People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, or PETA, first came on the scene. Harnessing the public’s determination to do right by animals to a sophisticated use of public relations, the media savvy organization went undercover, staged dramatic protests, spawned provocative ad campaigns such as “I’d rather go naked,” in which celebrities pranced about in the all-together, and succeeded in drawing attention to the maltreatment of animals in laboratories, fashion houses, and test kitchens. According to its website, PETA has persuaded over 200 clothing companies to cease using fur and has made the wearing of a fur coat synonymous with culturally inappropriate behavior.

The fur industry parried PETA as best it could, rejecting out of hand even the slightest suggestion that its days were numbered. Pointing to burgeoning trade with China as well as to the near-ubiquitous fur trim on down jackets worn in this country, it insists that sales are robust and that whatever ups and downs the industry experiences are to be expected, a cost of doing business. When that argument failed to persuade, industry representatives took the moral high ground by arguing that wearing a fur is a matter of individual choice, an expression of independence, intimating that it’s as much a right, a perquisite of citizenship, as other constitutional guarantees.

Round and round it goes, each side giving as good as it gets and endowing that old adage “the fur flies” with new meaning.

On the surface, this contentious issue has everything to do with animal rights and little to do with America’s Jews per se. Even though a number of factors might render the “fur question” a “Jewish question,” expressions of antisemitism have yet to poison the air; raised eyebrows and sneers are more like it. All the same, there’s no mistaking the Jewish inflection of the fur industry in the United States. As the bitter 1920 strike of the International Fur and Leather Workers made clear, a hefty proportion of its membership, like those in the garment industry more generally, hailed from Jewish immigrant backgrounds. Of the 10,000 estimated workers in the fur industry prior to WWI, 7,000 were Jewish, as were most of the fur wholesalers and retailers. You have only to rifle through a city directory to encounter the prevalence of Jewish names among them, or to look up at the faded signage on the sides of buildings in New York’s fur district, which ran (and still does) between Sixth and Eighth avenues and 26th and 30th streets: See if, at 115-123 West 29th St., you can still spot L. Rabinowitz & Sons Furs & Skins; S. Goldin & Pollack Furriers Supplies; and Herman Gabbe & Bro., Inc., Fur Dressers, Dyers and Bleachers, their names blurred by time and weather.

More tellingly still, popular perception associated Jewish women with the wearing of fur. It’s not for nothing, after all, that Felicia Lamport titled her celebrated 1950 memoir of growing up affluent and Jewish on Manhattan’s Upper West Side Mink on Weekdays.

Sporting a feathery ornament or two was something else again. In the early years of the 20th century, the most successful animal rights campaign prior to PETA’s emergence later in the century trained its sights on birds, not furry things; more pointedly still, anti-immigrant sentiment, laced with a not-so-subtle form of antisemitism, ruffled its feathers.

During the 1880s, when women wore hats in public as a matter of course, oversized, befeathered creations were all the rage. More like platters than head coverings, women’s chapeaux sported faux fruits, vegetation, ribbons, furbelows, as well as feathers, often several at once. Well-to-do women were partial to ostrich, whose soft, fluttery plumes lent themselves to being dyed in the latest shades of silk such as “cadet blue,” “mahogany,” and “crushed strawberry.” Those with a limited budget turned to wild bird plumage, available for a lot less but with enough of the same look to pass muster.

The soaring price of plumage, a matter of demand outrunning supply, was good for the Jews who, in the years prior to WWI, were involved in the global ostrich feather trade, as Sarah Abrevaya Stein’s vivid account, Plumes: Ostrich Feathers, Jews and a Lost World of Global Commerce, stunningly reveals. From a tiny town in South Africa where ostriches were bred to feather brokers and merchants in London who sold the raw material, and on to feather manufacturers clustered in New York, between Canal and Houston streets downtown, the feathers were sorted, graded, washed, dried, dyed, cut, and combed by a largely Russian Jewish female work force. Once ready for their entrance, they would then be sold to milliners and department stores across the land who’d release them onto the heads of millions of consumers.

Feathers ruled fashion’s roost—but not if Mother Nature’s champions had anything to do with it. Alarmed by what they took to be the pillaging of America’s natural resources to satisfy the whims of the fickle consumer and horrified by the cruelty to animals that sustained it, a band of well-heeled women sought to protect the country’s avian wildlife by putting an end to the traffic in feathers. Forming the Audubon Society in 1897, they wrote letters, buttonholed those in a position of power, staged public protests, successfully sought legislation banning the sale and importation of feathers, and, wearing the equivalent of their hearts on their sleeves, eschewed the befeathered hat in favor of one that made do, more simply, with ribbons or with a modicum of adornment instead. They called it an “Audubonnet.”

On paper, the members of the Audubon Society distinguished between the process by which feathers were obtained from farmed ostriches, said to resemble a harmless haircut and hence tolerated, and that enacted on birds in the wild, said to be a painful process and consequently condemned. In reality, though, that distinction was honored in the breach and all feathers were given the heave-ho.

That both branches, the high end and the inexpensive end, of the industry were manned largely by Jews didn’t help matters. Nor did the observation in a 1905 editorial titled “Aliens,” in Bird-Lore, the society’s house magazine, that the “foreign-born part of our cosmopolitan population are giving the Association a great deal of trouble and some hard work. They seem to have an inconquerable desire to kill something, and no respect for the law.” And if that weren’t enough to put you off your feathers, the notion that the “foreign-born” were somehow impervious to nature’s charms did the trick.

Once in the hands of the Audubon Society, it didn’t take much for the wearing of feathers to be construed as un-American. And when that happened, it was only a matter of time before the bottom fell out of the feather business, a process hastened by the outbreak of WWI, when patriotism was polished to a high gloss. Culpable, too, was the postwar promotion of “jaunty and chic” hats that clung tightly to the head, making hats that fluttered look dowdy and ungainly.

Then, as now, consumers felt trapped between Dame Fashion and Mother Nature. How they—and we—resolved that tension and decided what to put on their backs and on their heads turned out to be everybody’s business.

Jenna Weissman Joselit, the Charles E. Smith Professor of Judaic Studies & Professor of History at the George Washington University, is currently at work on a biography of Mordecai M. Kaplan.