Monkey fur coat, c. 1938


Monkey fur inspires strong reactions. On my first encounter with a monkey fur coat, I was shocked by its smooth black locks, which were alarmingly similar to human hair. Among the FIDM Museum staff, we have differing reactions not only to monkey fur, but to fur in general. These differences in opinion arise during our frequent discussions about various aspects of fashion history, or when a new acquisition features fur elements. Despite any personal preferences, we all understand that fur has been an integral element of human dress for thousands of years and it is therefore important to both document and study examples of fur in fashion. Previously, we've written about our Ted Lapidus wolf and coyote fur coat and on issues arising from the use of feathers in fashion.

S20088971-2Monkey fur bolero
c. 1938
Gift of Steven Porterfield

Though Elsa Schiaparelli is closely associated with monkey fur, sources indicate that it was also used in the nineteenth century. An March 1867 article from Arthur's Home Magazine describes monkey fur as "well-known," prized specifically for the way it hangs gracefully over the hands when made into a muff. A 1892 cartoon from La Vie Parisienne features a monkey pointing at woman clad in a hat and coat clearly made from monkey fur. The caption reads, "When O Ladies, will you stop creating beauty for yourselves out of our ugliness?" Though the meaning of the caption is a bit unclear, it suggests that animal fur might be better left on animals, rather than made into fur coats. This juxtaposition of virtuous animal and ravenous human is often used in contemporary anti-fur campaigns.

Schiaparelli brought monkey fur into the center spotlight during the 1930s. In 1933, Schiaparelli presented the "shoulder tray coat," a wool coat with a ring of long black monkey fur encircling the coat at shoulder height. Later in the 1930s, Schiaparelli introduced a number of garments featuring monkey fur, including a pair of short boots with monkey fur spilling over the foot opening, and a sweater covered front and back with monkey fur. After Schiaparelli incorporated monkey fur into her haute couture creations, it quickly appeared on ready-made garments. In advertisements and fashion coverage, sleek and shiny monkey fur was often described as modern, daring and sophisticated. Though monkey fur had a particular cachet, fur of all types was frequently incorporated into 1930s fashionable dress, particularly outerwear. Our late 1930s monkey fur coat bears a tag reading Peyton's, Oklahoma City. Clearly, a desire for monkey fur spread far and wide from Schiaparelli's Paris salon!

S20088971S2008.897.1 Back view

The type of monkey fur used by Schiaparelli and the maker of our bolero comes from the colobus monkey. Native to Africa, the colobus is an arboreal monkey, meaning it spends most of its life in the tree canopy and rarely descends to solid ground. There are multiple types and colors of colobus monkeys, though the black and white variety was most commonly hunted for its distinctive, long fur and striking dark color. Though no longer sought after for use in western fashionable dress, the colobus is currently at risk from habitat loss due to deforestation.


12 responses to “Monkey fur coat, c. 1938

  1. Karan Feder says:

    The Liberace costume collection has a few examples of monkey fur incorporated into stage costumes. Liberace asserted that the monkey fur had been re-purposed, although there is also a leopard skin tuxedo jacket in the collection….

  2. I noticed there’s probably a mistake… you mention a cartoon from “1992” – I suppose that was to be 1892.
    All historical, fashion and moral issues aside, I think I like the fur of colobus monkey much more when still atached to a live animal – I think that’s a design no fashion can surpass. ๐Ÿ™‚

  3. Kara says:

    Out of all the things in costume we no longer use, monkey fur has always been the one that grossed me out the most.

  4. Rachel says:

    Hana-Thanks for catching the typo! I did mean to type 1892, and it’s now fixed in the post.

    Karan-It’s possible that the monkey fur in Liberace’s collection was actually repurposed from other garments. I’ve seen this done sometimes in historic garments, as fur is/was such an expensive item. This is particularly true for the exotic furs like monkey, big cat, as it’s illegal to import/buy/sell. I think it is also illegal to buy or sell even vintage exotic furs without a permit, though I’d have to double-check on this.

    Kara-Synthetic monkey fur is probably a convincing substitute!

  5. Wow! Oddly enough (or actually maybe not odd at all) the silhouette of the jacket is slightly gorilla-esque.

    Any chance they were just catching and shaving the monkeys? I’m going to convince myself that’s how they acquired all of this fur…

  6. Terri says:

    I was told that shooting monkeys for this purpose was outlawed in 1928…thus considered an endangered species and illegal to sell since 1970.
    I have a knee length one.

  7. Louise says:

    Fur is murder. How dare you use the excuse that it’s been worn for thousands of years. YES to keep warm when we didn’t have cotton, polyester, nylon etc. How dare you use that as an excuse to murder innocent animals who are used for NOTHING other than to make you look good, you don’t eat the organs for survival, you just skin and wear. This is vulgar, wrong and anyone who wears a fur of any type should be skinned too and worn as a trophy, see how they might like it!

  8. James says:

    Fur is murder…to clean. This is a fascinating article about a fur I didn’t know was used. I don’t think however it would have been too popular up here in the north. We’ll stick to our seal and wolf.

  9. Dustin says:

    I wonder who Louise was referring to as ‘you’? I hope it wasn’t Rachel, the author of the post. I don’t believe that she was in any way advocating the wearing of fur.
    I suppose, on the grounds of supposed cruelty, that Louise is against wearing wool, too, which is a renewable insulating (for warmth) fiber that can, however, be harvested without requiring the death of an animal. Yet she advocates wearing plastics (polyester and nylon) that are created from petrochemicals (derived from coal or oil) that create their own problem of pollutants which can adversely affect animals and the environment. Also, those fibers don’t readily decompose beyond usage once relegated to landfill. And by the way, cotton and plant fibers do not provide much in the way of warmth in cold climates.
    I am in no way supportive of wearing fur either, so I am in agreement with Louise on that principle, but her aggressive accusations and assumptions and ill-informed opinions are offensive. It would be better for all if she would read blog posts more carefully and better inform herself before leaving such rude comments on future posts.

  10. veronica says:

    I have a full length coat beautiful in pretty good condition but seems to be pretty old its a lot of gorilla hair for the making of this coat. I rescue animals and I dont agree with the killing of anything at all , but I have no control only a voice and I can only save the animals that I can catch. Im not sure what to do with this beautiful coat.?.?

  11. FIDM Museum says:

    Hi Veronica,

    If you feel uncomfortable keeping the coat, you could consider donating it – perhaps to a clothing charity or local cultural institution.

  12. Carolag says:

    Thank you for answering my question about the type of fur this is. I’ve seen this style of fur coat recently in several movies from the 30’s and while very dramatic, wondered what it was. Amazing to think that someone choose to kill these animals and make a coat for a “lady” to wear. Among other things it proves how gullible we can be when we follow those who tell us how to look and what to wear. Knowledge is power.

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