WILDE THING: Oscar Wilde in beaver, Keith Richards in ermine, Dries van Noten’s colour revolution and Philip the Good, Duke of Burgundy for the right way to wear black– how fur in men’s fashion and style has always follow the rule that ‘less is more’

Dries van Noten A/W 2014

When Oscar Wilde was photographed by the renowned Napoleon Sarony on the 5th January 1882 the young aesthete had just arrived in New York  as the start of a lecture tour of the United States. He was talking about the art of the Renaissance, but it was his dress that really caught everyone’s attention.  Anti the ‘ugliness’ of 19C male attire, pro the clothing of the 18C, he believed that ‘Fashion is ephemeral. Art is eternal. ... Fashion is merely a form of ugliness so absolutely unbearable that we have to alter it every six months!’ He wore a velvet jacket, soft collar, velvet breeches and hose – very close to the dress of Voltaire.  And in the Sarony portrait he is wearing a cloth coat, from London, that has its collars and cuffs decorated with sheared beaver.  Was this an unconscious reference to the restrained use of fur in elegant men’s dress in the 18C and beyond? I think not.  He will have seen the men about town in London, Dublin and New York in their sea otter, racoon and wolfskin coats desperately emulating ‘Viking’ berserkers  and made a mental note of not to do it. ‘Where archaeology begins, art ceases’ he told an artist called Schmalz (yes, it is true!) who was painting a ‘Viking picture’. Less is always more.

Men have had a much easier time of it with fashion than women have -  and if one looks back, like Wilde, to the 18th century, when dress was one of the civilised arts, and men were allowed to be as decorative as any woman of fashion without losing their masculinity, one can see the fur was an integral part of Fashion, literally part of the warp and weft. Dries van Noten most notably touched on this in his AW 2014/15 collection – colour, textures, furs – in a way that references not only other cultures but the art and history of European men’s fashion, pre-1789 and the ‘Great Renunciation’ made by men which resulted the prosaic notions of masculinity and the suit. It was what Wilde campaigned against in his early years and, although I do not want to suggest that there is ‘archaeology’ in this theme, there is some – and long may it continue.

‘What am I wearing?’ Sheared beaver ....  Wilde by Napoleon Sarony, 1882

Alexander McQueen, A/W 2006. Looks like coyote and prince of Wales check suit in a look that plays on the theme of the beast within; the ‘inspiration’ was Francis Ford Coppola’s Dracula – costumed by Eiko Ishioka.

Philip the Good, Duke of Burgundy receiving the Chronicles of Hainult from Jean Wauquelin 1447-8, by Rogier van der Weyden . The Duke of Burgundy wears  a hood and short gown, as do the younger courtiers, with the chain of the Order of the Golden Fleece – itself an allegory  in part of the magic nature of skins. The Duke’s gown is edged or lined with sable – but the emphasis is on the discreet use of fur and the maximum impact of the black Italian silk gown.

Todd Lynn A/W 2010, gold cross fox wrap with  Todd Lynn’s trademark raised shoulder/sleeve head – and this look is an unconscious reference to the silhouette of Philip the Good.  Alexander McQueen’s favourite era of art history was the Netherlandish School of the 14th and 15th centuries; that severity of line appears again and again in his work and is also seen here in what is a highly sophisticated design using furs.

Sir Joshua Reynolds , portrait of Joseph Banks, 1771 – 1773. He is wearing a  red velvet coat that appears to be  lined with marten fur; this is merely part of being well dressed: his ornate brocade waistcoat is of imported silk and the coat is silk velvet. The fur is incidental.

Richard Nicoll, A/W 2014. Mink collar in matching deep vermilion. Nicoll has consistently brought his own sense of Antipodean light and colour to fashion since he left Central Saint Martins in 2002 and has done it very well. His signature is distinctive and confident. Nor is he confined by convention when it comes fabric and texture. This mink colour is modest but its gloss is all part of the story of texture and touch.

Baron Gerard, portrait of Joachim Murat, later Marshal of France, 1801. He married Napoleon’s youngest sister Caroline, became King of Naples, when has nicknamed ‘the dandy king’ in reference to his flamboyance. He was a dashing cavalry officer; he wears a ‘blue’ fox skin here as well as a cape trimmed with a brown fur.  In the 18th century, visitors to Russia were given furs – in 1777, Gustavus III of Sweden was given a pelisse of blue fox by Catherine the Great.

Dries van Noten  A/W 2014

1440-1442, Miniver lining in the robe worn by a patron in the fresco byDomenico di Bartolo, ‘Care of the Infirm’ in the Hospital of Sta Maria di Scala, Siena. I believe this man was a rich skin merchant – and at this time the fashion for miniver was at its height.  

Richard Nicoll, A/W 2014

Paul Poiret, ‘Le Perse’: printed coat by Martine Workshops, design by Raoul Dufy, edged with fur, 1911

When in Venice – The Grand Tour allowed for far greater expemintation and freedom in dress during the 18C: Rosealba Carriera, portrait of Gustavus Hamilton, Viscount Boyne, in Venetian Carnival mask, three cornered hat, lace mantellina and robe trimmed with squirrel fur. Is he getting ready to dress in disguise for the carnival, or has he returned from a assignation?

As with Poiret referencing ‘The East’ in La Perse, so too Alexander McQueen’s A/W 2008; in this case, Mongolian tribesmen. His equivalent womenswear collection was ‘In Memory of Elizabeth Howe, 1692, a pean to an ancestor who was burned as a witch by the vile, superstitious cretins in control in Salem at the end of the 17C. This however is Lee McQueen exaggerating the ancient furred Mongolian headwear and underlining the reference with the froth of scarf in the russet red of traditional costume.

Jan  van Eyck, Giovanni Arnolfini and Giovanna Cenami, 1434. This is not a wedding scene but rather ar record of a union between the wealthy Italian merchant and his bride to be. Arnolfini wears a tabard of (now faded) purple silk velvet lined with, I believe,  marten, not sable. Why? Sumptuary legislaton literally went in and out of fashion until the 17C. Sable would have been above his station. Also, Van Eyck is one of the greatest artists in history. If it was sable, it would have looked like sable. Again, fur is for display, but of equal importance is fabric and colour. The rule of good taste  (or rather, good breeding then) was overt rather than vulgar display.

Keith Richards in ermine ... Anita Pallenberg in fox or coyote ... Mick Jagger in velvet; all in soft felt hats. History repeats itself, circa 1968, with The Rolling Stones.

Alexander McQueen A/W 2006, beetroot purple fox wrap for tailored gangster style. Again – the feral in fur is only a step away. Shades of Keith Richards? All is retro when it comes to men and fur, but it is the teaming for fur and fabric, the manifestation of the civilised art of dress that the reference that is made over and over again.

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