Historic Feminine Fur Fashions
For the February “Artifact of the Month” at the Western Illinois Museum, fashions from a by-gone day will be on display: a woman’s white beaver hat and two mink scarves.
Currently, many people frown upon fur in fashion. However, if a visitor looks at these fur pieces with a historical perspective, they can illustration how fashions have changed. The white beaver hat and the mink scarves reflect what was acceptable and fashionable. While fur fashions are currently out of favor, there was a time when clothing made out of fur was completely acceptable and having a fine fur piece in your wardrobe was considered a status symbol.
The fur pieces show fur fashion and illustrate millinery history. Now regarded as an optional accessory usually only worn in cold weather, hats were once regarded as a critical component to a lady’s ensemble. In the 19th century and well into the early decades of the 20th century, no woman’s outfit was considered complete unless she was wearing a hat.
The hat on display makes a powerful impact. Made in a circular design of white beaver accented with ostrich plumes and adorned with a velvet bow and rhinestone clips, this hat would have been worn by a woman who wanted to make an entrance into a room and turn heads.
Measuring 19 inches in diameter, the wide-brimmed hat is a style that was popular from the beginning of the 20th century into the 1930s. Originally, this type of wide-brimmed flat hat served the purpose to shield the wearer from the rays of the sun, but this style evolved into serving more as a way to display large quantities of trimmings, bows and other decorations and frame the wearer's face to its best advantage.
The history of hats is a long one. Hats have been worn since humankind began wearing clothes. First worn for the simple function of keeping the head warm and protected from the elements, it was not until the end of the sixteenth century that female hat design began to come into its own. The evolution of hats from a merely utilitarian part of a wardrobe to a style statement was a centuries-long process in clothing history.
During the first half of the 19th century, bonnets were the dominant style, growing ever larger with elaborate trimmings, ribbons and feathers. By the end of the century, many other hat styles were also on the market including wide brims with flat crowns, such as the hat on display.
Until about the 1950s every major department store had a millinery department featuring hats of every shape and style. A woman’s hat was a fashion statement as well as a status symbol, a head-top decoration showing the world how style-conscious she was.
The white beaver hat shown at the museum would have been quite a trend-setting accessory. An item in the New York Times dated September 26, 1918 notes that white beaver is expected to find favor in millinery circles in the coming fashion season.
The trim of ostrich plumes on the hat was also very in vogue. For centuries ostrich plumes were important elements in hat design, being prominent in royal and military headgear.
Beginning in the 1880s in the United States, ostrich farming, raising the birds for their plumes to be used in clothing, was a huge enterprise in California and Arizona. Adding ostrich feathers to a hat continued well into the 20th century as a popular crowning touch.
It could be surmised that a woman who might wear a white beaver hat would also be inclined to wear other pieces of fur to complete her ensemble. The two mink scarves on display complement the hat. These two pieces are narrower than a mink stole, which is similar in size to a shawl, covering the shoulders. The two mink scarves would have been worn wrapped around the neck and draped down the side, the same as one would wear a woolen scarf.
It might seem odd to some that on each of the mink scarves are the heads, tails and feet, including the claws, of the minks. The eyes are small glass beads. Although the inclusion of the body parts seems strange to us now, during the 1920s-30s, this was considered the height of fashion and women proudly wore their fur pieces with heads, tails and feet on view.
Approximately 51 inches long, the dark brown mink is made up of four skins total with a label sewn inside, “Rice & Weiser Furriers, since 1920, Peoria, Illinois”. The lighter brown piece is approximately 58 inches long and has three skins total. Sewn inside it is a label with the monogram “BRP”. Being a valuable accessory, it was very common for women to have monogrammed labels in their furs, making it easier to locate their fur when checked at a hatcheck.
Nowadays we think of mink being worn with a gown or other formal wear, but during the 1920s and 1930s, it was quite common for women to accessorize less formal outfits with fur collars and scarves. For a time in fashion history, many women, from movie stars to socialites, to the woman on the street, wore fur-trimmed outfits or fur accessories and they were considered tres chic.
The white beaver hat and two mink scarves were on display February 1- February 26, 2011.
From an essay by Heather Munro