There have been many layers of meaning attached to the idea of fur fashion throughout its history: some view it as barbarism, some view it as trendy, many see it being an issue of comfort, while other societies have depended on its thermal insulation to ensure their survival in harshly cold climates. As fashion evolved to carry more weight as a reflection of one’s opulence, societal stature, and personality, cultures have used nature’s creatures as a means to ornament their body. The history of fur trade as well as the role fur has on fashion trends have long been rooted in socioeconomic standings. From this perspective, the profound role the fur trade has had on shaping cultures cannot be understated. Indeed, it is history of fur and fur fashion that played a profound influence on global expansion of business, cultures, and the molding and reshaping what it meant to be fur fashionable.
When the Europeans explored mainland North America for the first time in 1500s, their business trading with the native’s offerings of fur and meat was not the first time Europeans had been exposed to fur fashion. Fur fashion enjoyed a boom in European society during the Middle Ages in particular as a reflection of status and wealth because of its limited accessibility. However, the early trade with the Natives by the St. Lawrence River, particularly with the Huron tribe, shook the historical arrangements between indigenous tribes, within individual communities, and European business models and fashion. Unsurprising with France’s influence on fashion, the French were the first to engage in large scale trading of fur fashion by establishing themselves as the most important trader with the natives. New indigenous tribes emerged to take advantage of the new economic climate, while others collapsed due to their interference of trade routes and inability to cope with the new economic climate. The importance of the fur trade and the economic benefits of fur fashion became the stage for colonial power struggle in North America with the creation of the Hudson’s Bay Company. When two French traders, Pierre-Esprit Radisson and Médard des Groseilliers failed to convince French officials to establish a trading post at Hudson Bay in order to reduce overhead costs, they sought the help of the English to finance the exploration. From this, the balance of power shifted, not only in the fur trade but in terms of claim to power. Indeed, fur fashion became the key to economic and colonial power in North America.
On May 2, 1670, a Royal Charter by King Charles II granted the traders involved in the Governor and Company of Adventurers of England a monopoly over trade with the Indians – with particular attention paid to the fur trade – on all the lands that drained into Hudson Bay. A century followed of increased encroachment of British influence on the fur trade which infuriated the French and their native allies. A century of intermittent war, genocide, and disturbances in the fur trade followed culminating in 1760 in where New France, the Canadian territory held by France where most of the fur trade was occurring, was conquered by the British. Even today, fur fashion carries a weight of importance, opulence, and power. Realizing that the trade was cultivated in the context of global political struggle, this significance is predictable.
From the European context, London became the epicenter of the fur trade to the developed world, whereas previously it was Paris.
Meanwhile, as the American Revolution took hold, Americans sought to distance themselves from British influence and an important component of this independence involved commerce. The American Fur Company founded in 1808 by John Jacob Astor sought to monopolize the fur trade in the United States. However, in this scramble for imperial power, the French, British, and Americans had marginalized the most important players of the fur trade: The natives. Genocide, tribal divisions, and the loss of control over their land had made it impossible for them to maintain trading systems. The collapse of the fur trade had many repercussions: the American Fur Company went out of business in 1842, the Hudson’s Bay branched out to other forms of business, and there became an increased demand for silk as the most desired material in fashion in Europe.So, what is the implication of the fur trade’s history as it concerns fur’s role in fashion today? For starters, the original function of fur clothes in its practical warmth that made fur essential clothing for natives in colder regions in the world was transformed. Fur fashion became increasingly attached to the non-tangible; it was the luxurious appearance and the societal position that fur reveals about the wearer that became its most important purpose. And that mentality remains today. Additionally, as the fur trade has experienced a boom and bust, fur fashion and fur clothes became significant in symbolizing a certain nostalgia and glory of the period of untapped potential and unlimited exploration. The price for fur clothes remains high and thus fur is coupled with certain elitism. The history of fur that has endured a fluctuation in its supply and demand has made fur fashion the most unique material of clothing. And it has made it one of the more controversial too.
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