Last night at Fendi’s New Bond Street store in there was a party to launch the arrival of the A/W 2014 menswear collection. As Fendi is in Mayfair, the celebrations took place on the traditional turf of the dandy, a stone’s throw from Savile Row. The Italian brand’s looks this season, however, are rather more lavish than the king of the dandies, George ‘Beau Brummell’ would have permitted in his circle of fashion. The immaculate Brummell wore a fur-lined coat lest he look in any way ostentatious and his contemporary, the Duke of Wellington, wore a greatcoat lined with sable for warmth and a sense of luxury on the battlefield. Contrast this with the images of Napoleon’s brother in law General Murat and his flamboyant use of furs one gets a sense of the historical cultural divide between the Anglo-Saxon and Latin tribes; for the former, showiness is ‘bad taste’. Is it a cliché that the latter regard conspicuous display as an inherent part of masculinity; a peacock display that is part of the mating ritual?  Yet much of his is to do with the allure of myth, legend and histories, specifically of the North.

There ain‘t nothin‘ like a Dane ...
Explorer, adventurer, Danish throwback: Portrait of Peter Freuchen by Irving Penn, 1945.
Freuchen stands at 6‘ 7“ wearing a coat made from polar bear skins. His passion was for the Inuit and their culture; his third wife is seated in the background. This indeed is a man from the wild frontier for whom mythology, history and morality was intertwined. In his dreams would Ernest Hemingway match up, taking pot shots at big game. In furs – not a fashion statement, but a reference to ancient bear cults.

Men in Europe and Scandinavia ceased wearing fur on the outside of a garment in the 10th century AD. When Julius Caesar invaded England in 55 BC he noted in De bello Gallico that the Ancient Britons were ‘pellibusque sunt vestiti’ or ‘clothed in skins’. In Judeo-Christian faiths, as in Classical civilisations, fur was synonymous with the savage, the uncivilised, the barbarian.

The word ‘savage’ comes from the Latin word ‘silva’, meaning ‘of the forest’, and ‘savages’ were the peoples who inhabited vast tracts of woodland and forest that covered Northern Europe. With their ‘pagan’ gods of thunder and acts human sacrifice, these peoples shared the land with fur bearing animals. The men hunted them for food and fur and animals, particularly bear and wolf were totems. Wearing their skins, worshipping their spirits, warriors would become superhuman, transforming into wolf warriors, like the Saxon resistance fighter Hereward the Wake, nicknamed ‘Wolfs Head’ and the Nordic bearshirts, or ‘berserkers’. Or, of course, the House of Stark with its Dire-wolf ‘sigil’ and its shape-shifting ability.

Just as we have had a spate of Marvel-superheroes on screen like Nordic Thor, the shape-shifting Batman and a remake of Conan the Barbarian, fur-clad superman of the steppes, so has a fantasy that involves dirt, blood, battle, sex and a surprisingly likeable array of ‘Wildings’ taken hold in the public imagination. Decadent man= the blond pervert/sadist that has resulted from incest, King Joffrey, marinated in soft Southron ways and literally polar opposite to the ‘Men of the North’, with their worship of Nature and the ‘old gods’. The costumes that do  include furs, notably of Ned Stark and John Snow, are worn, the visual insinuates, by men who had fought a bear – and won. All this may sound silly until you look at the first picture in this blog: Peter Freuchen, Danish hunter, adventurer and maverick who is wearing a coat of polarbear skin. He lived with and campaigned for Inuit cultures – and this image shows what film and written legend emulates. He did not need to buy the fur himself. This is a potent image of manhood that goes right back to the legend of Hercules.

Fashion is a mere interpretation of this visceral truth. And of course, a lot of fashion is profoundly decadent – but what it does always is to reflect the social and often, political context of the times.  And the time we are in is deeply uncertain. It does not mean men should dress like a ‘barbarian’, but it partly explains it. The final image from the Givenchy menswear A/2014 shows a model in leather trousers and mink ‘sports towel’. Fight or Flight? The theme is still valid.

King of the Steppes: Conan the Barbarian, 1982, costume designer John Bloomfield. Clad in skins of indeterminate variety,  Bloomfield focussed on the idea of Teutonic, Nordic warrior at one with Nature; in truth, it is shorthand for the mythic Beserker or shapeshifter – a warrior who wears wolf or bearskins and becomes part beast in battle; an idea explored and exploited in Game of Thrones and is far better incorporated in Bram Stoker’s Dracula by Francis Ford Coppola.

Game of Clones: Big Boi  fox puffa -come robe, a cliché of ‘black style’; conspicuous consumption, a Yo! Sauvage! dandyism. But nothing, not even the phallic emblems of the Iron Throne can make this the image of a warrior. It is more Eddie Murphy and Arsenio Hall in Coming to America  (1988) than Malcolm X. It’s actually deeply colonial and profoundly ‘white’ – fox fur, styled in this way, is Liberace not Liberation.

Dire Wolf Clan: Lord Stark, Game of Thrones, played in a deeply Yorkshire comfort-zone by Sean Bean. An entire fox is the collar; until the 10th century AD, men wore furs on the exterior of their clothing. This neither past nor future be; rather a ripplingly good yarn that pitches classic Northern stereotypes -  ‘savage’ against Southern ‘civilised but decadent’. Superb costuming by Michele Clapton.

Parka-man
This collection by Mr Ford was inspired by Native American cultures ... particularly the use of furs. Tom Ford A/W 2014.

‘Natty  Bumppo’ costume. The character is from James Fenimore Cooper’s  classic, The Leatherstocking Tales, which include The Last of the Mohicans. The modest Natty Bumppo, man of the backwoods, who kills only what he needs and lives in harmony with Nature. Costume by Tasha Tudor; fox, feathers,  from What Clothes Reveal’, The Colonial Williamsburg Collection.

Could do better: Leatherstocking the hunter stalks the runway of Fendi, AW 2014, in a metro-version of Natty Bumppo. Is this really as far as we have come in terms of fur and masculinity? Sometimes a bit of camp really does go a long way. That is why John Galliano and Jean Paul Gaultier ‘own’ this look ... Milanese pussyfooting around the issue with bourgeois, respectable ‘good taste’ just does not cut it.. Note the shag carpet on the runway.

Action Man: ‘Fur-ious’, Dutch, September/October 1999. Ponyskin and rabbit coat by Gucci. An early venture into reclaiming fur and skins as part of fashion for men, this story veered away from anything androgynous and went for the rude muscle-boy-meets-brando-meets-street-tribal. Photographer Matthias Vriens, text by Richard Buckley,

‘Unleash Hell!’ Russell Crowe, Gladiator, costume designer Janty Yates. The story is that General Maximus has spent so many years fighting the germanic tribes that he has started wearing skins, as they do .... It would have been seen as decadent by many Ancient Romans, a sign that he had become dangerously close to becoming a savage.

Despite Graeco-Roman condemnation of men-in-furs unless they have killed the beast themselves, this ‘barbarian’ trope has timeless appeal. . Fox fur coat by Trussardi, necklace by Versace. Dutch, September/October 1999. The explicit sexuality of some of the Vriens images and the frisson of the furs – particularly here against the naked skin is part of an old story, traditionally one in which utilises the female-almost-nude in fur. This was later explored with pizzazz by Mario Testino in his ‘Adonis in Furs’ story, styled by Carine Roitfeld for French Vogue.

Henry VIII, anonymous portrait,  c. 1520. Furs made the men ....  Henry VIII’s rivalry with his contemporaries Holy Roman Emperor Charles V and François I of France early in his career was limited to vainglorious displays of wealth. Part of the status was in dress – when he ascended to the throne in 1509 he rejected ermine as the royal fur and replaced it with Russian sable. The Duke of Buckingham wore a sable gown valued at £1,500, when a craftsman’s wage was 6d (6 pennies a day). Henry VIII spent, says one entry in the Royal  Wardrobe accounts, £166, 13s 4d on 100 sables. In 1532 Sumptuary legislation was instigated: sable was exclusively royal, no one ranked below a baron could wear genet or lynx.

Jakob Seisenegger, Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor, with his hunting dog, 1533.

Breadth of silhouette, major fur statement emphasising that width in sable, plus a prominent codpiece – the ethos was masculine but the nature of the clothes – these were constructed for movement, not mere symbolism; for warmth as well as status.

‘Gang’, left, and yes, right is ‘Bang’: sheared mink scarf by J.Mendel, last seen by Mrs Miniver doing the furs for the more salubrious Theatre de la Mode ...  Just how much compensatory phallic symbolism did a sheared mink accessory require in 1999, to move it into masculine territory? ‘Fur-ious’, Dutch, September/October 1999, Matthias Vriens.

Moroni, portrait of Antonio Navagero, 1565, in lynx-lined gown and symbolic tumescence. It was, after all, the reign of Philip II. Furs in general were going out of fashion in the second half of the 16C.  In England, Elizabeth I eschewed furs. In the words of the French dowager queen consort,  Catherine de Medici, ‘Leave furs to those old foxes, the men’ and in 1560 the Muscovy Company of London advised in a letter to its agent in Russia to only buy the best sables, lynx and ‘lettice, for they will not be so commonly worn here as they have been with noblemen.’

‘Make mine a suit of sables ..’ By which the eponymous Prince of Denmark  in William Shakespeare’s

Hamlet means black ... The default position for Todd Lynn and one that can really work when well judged and a balance of texture and proportion. This is the urban man of fashion, a moderate in his furs as Durer and his lover, but with a considered gothic twist. Todd Lynn A/W 2010

Albrecht Durer, self portrait, 1500. Durer wears an overgown that is lined with fur, in this case looking like rabbit – which would have befitted his status. This painting is all about hair, of course – of the head, the face and the hair of an animal .... Durer’s great talent was not only ad a draughtsman but also as an artist who could bring textures to life. He was a well-to-do artist and there is nothing showy in his dress. And just as now, so was it then; the fur gown was a purchase, sot an emblem of his hunting prowess.

And moving smoothly on .... Albrecht Durer, Portrait of Oswalt Krel, 1499 Alte Pinakothek, Munich. This was Durer’s boyfriend – a difficult character, by all accounts, in near deshabille here – but the fur here is marten, more expensive than Durer’s. He sits between two wild men as an unofficial as well as official narrative. Fur would denote bestiality, man’s lower instincts, but it was  also associated with innocence of the mythical  golden age. Krel’s coat of arms is held by wild man, a man of the woods. By 1500, fur started to be ‘doublure’, to have a double-meaning,  inner and outer,  the spiritual and the physical. This is argued by Joseph Leo Koerner in his book The Moment of Self-Portraiture in German Renaissance Art. And this is of course as completely manufactured as the next image, albeit a great work of art.
 

Teutonic fantasy .... woods .... weimeraners ...  wolf-shirt ... Or rather, boy in what appears to be a woman’s  foxfur coat, madly at sea with the message and relying on the cliche of androgyny. If you want to look like a hunter, don’t have weimeraner’s. Might as well be on Hampstead Heath on a Sunday morning. Durer it is not. Nicola Spinelli,  ‘Dammerung’, OPPA magazine.

Playing Giovanni in John Ford’s ‘Tis Pity She’s A Whore - Alain Delon in fur edged short gown in 1530s ensemble with director Luchino Visconti, Théâtre de Paris, 1961. The costume is by the great Piero Tosi. It is pure Titian.

Titian, Portrait of a Gentleman, an essay in masculine monochrome: black gown lined and edged in grey fur, his white shirt edged with fine blackwork embroidery. Pitti Palace, Florence.

The Sporting Life – mink ‘sports towel’ at Givenchy, with leather trousers, A/W 2014. It is a clever spin on fur and contemporary masculinity; it is also a variation on an ancient theme.

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