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My Mother, My Fur

For Janine di Giovanni, repurposing a vintage fur coat offered a way to feel close to her mother late in life.

My mother’s fur coats always hung in the front-hall closet. When I was a child and reached for my parka or duffel to go out to play, there they were: glossy, sleek, serried, invariably glamorous. My mother came from a generation of postwar women who wore fur in the same manner as they carried gold compacts; who never went out without lipstick, kid gloves, and a hat. Not once did I see her in a pair of ratty pajamas or jeans: She relaxed in silky nightgowns and robes; on the rare occasions she wore trousers—“Women should wear dresses or skirts! They’re far more flattering”— they were either ski pants or tailored tweed.

Mum’s first fur coat was a leopard, now illegal, one that she saved for out of her paycheck over a year before she married my father in the summer of 1942, after which he went off to war. She wore it until her second pregnancy, when she stretched it out of shape and gave it away. The styles would change over the years, from a classic Ava Gardner–type mink she wore with high heels and tailored skirts to a fake leopard coat in the 1970s with a gold chain belt and brown suede boots. Her all-time favorite was a full-length black Persian lamb with a chinchilla collar that my father had given her in the 1960s, with her name stitched inside: She cut it down to a car coat in the 1980s and then passed it on to me. I took it to Austria and wore it après-ski with leather leggings; I wore it in London with pencil skirts.

My mother came from another era, one of intense femininity, when the choice to wear fur did not commonly provoke the ethical crisis it does today. And if I’ve inherited my mother’s love of furs, at least the furs are inherited—or secondhand—too. In Maine, where I went to school, I wore my aunt’s hand-me-down sable coat over my Levi’s cords and L.L. Bean boots. The coat was enormous—it hung past my shins. My parents rocked with laughter when they saw me, saying I looked like the teenage actress in The World of Henry Orient who chases Peter Sellers around New York after she develops a crush on him.

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November 2018

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