Feb 2003 Journal

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Furs and Swells

One way or another, animal fur has played a small but not insignificant part in my life. It’s practically a banned substance in this country now, though one still sees it on the backs of women abroad. They probably haven’t been subjected to the poster campaign that shows how many dumb wild animals have to die to clothe a dumb human. When I tried to give away even a favourite suede jacket which no longer did up on me to my niece’s daughter, I was told the family had no use for animal skins. Do they wear clogs then, I wondered. Swears and Wells, Harrods and other stores which used to display in their windows models elegantly attired in mink and musquash have long since closed their doors or their fur departments and a transparent top rather than a white fur is now the badge of celebrity at a film premiere.

My earliest memories are of my mother – normally wrapped in a shabby old coat – transformed by the addition of a fox fur when going out visiting. I can still see in my mind’s eye its gingery pelt slung obliquely over her shoulder with the triangle of the fox’s face on her hip. Two beady eyes gleamed near the tip of the triangle and a clip behind it slotted into a loop at the other end to anchor the creature to its wearer. A bushy tail completed the picture.

After the Nazis entered Austria my mother tried desperately to find a safe haven for me with foster parents in England. We received photographs from a couple who were prepared to take me on. He was dressed in winter coat and trilby hat, she resplendent in a fur coat which gave an exaggerated image, as I was to discover, of their worldly wealth. ‘You see, you’re going to rich people,’ my mother commented, in her attempt to sweeten the pill of my departure.

When I arrived I found out that the said garment was a grey squirrel fur. My foster mother – I called her ‘auntie’ – had had it remodelled to what was then a more fashionable shorter length. What with its disproportionately large collar and my aunt’s diminutive size and plump figure, she looked in it for all the world like a large bumble bee. The coat did yeoman service in keeping her warm during the war and was finally demobbed with the soldiery when the war ended.

Now followed a period of making-do. Lino, which had seen service in many places during our evacuation, was cut up again to fit our London flat and no one gave a second thought to a luxury like fur. However, it was to come into its own again following the period of austerity. Then I began to notice a phalanx of black-clad ladies creeping towards our local synagogue. It was the middle-aged women of the Jewish community decked in what had become the uniform of the well-to-do, a black Persian lamb coat. Its tightly-curled surface did not lend itself to a caressing touch, but the prestige it conferred on its wearer was considerable. In fact, to be seen without one on the High Holy days was a sign of social failure.

When I married I found that my father-in-law was a furrier by trade. He had worked for Harrods at one point and then gone on to start his own business in the City. When he was bombed out of there he transferred his workshop to the top of his house in Stoke Newington. My mother-in-law was forever complaining about the dust this brought to their living quarters. I was fascinated by the paraphernalia of his trade – the trestle tables, model stands and bundles of skins and lengths of lining materials. My father-in-law used to amuse us by making wicked jokes about the sack-like figures of his clients. ‘Make it long,’ they instructed. The length was a matter of status. He also told us about his experiences of service in the First World War when the authorities mistook his trade for that of a farrier. Hardly knowing one end of a horse from another, he was nonplussed when expected to shoe it.

Near the end of her life my aunt also acquired one of the desirable Persian lamb coats. When she died, I found she had left me a small amount of money, her silver candlesticks and the coat. The last found a home with her niece, but with the money I bought a desk for my children from Heal’s and a luxurious sheepskin coat for myself. When I told the story to a neighbour she commented rather cruelly: ‘You’ve converted the aunt to the coat.’
Martha Blend

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