Culture At Large

Faux fur and the death of the real

Karen Swallow Prior

It’s the latest example of the classic “man bites dog” news story: department stores falsely advertise faux fur coats; lawsuits ensue.

Last month three upscale clothing retailers agreed to settle Federal Trade Commission charges that they misled consumers by advertising that their products contained faux fur when, in fact, they contained real fur. It might seem strange that a company would find it lucrative to mislead consumers by advertising not that their wares are genuine, but that they are fake. Some interesting phenomena are brought to light by such a turn of events.

First, a consumer preference for fake rather than real fur highlights the ongoing disillusionment with some of the excesses of the late modern age. When it comes to fur (and a host of other products), what was once a status symbol for earlier generations is anathema to today’s fashionistas with a social conscience.

Such progress in sartorial ethics is a good thing. The warmth and durability that fur alone provided in generations past is no longer a necessity for most of us in the world now. And the days of Daniel Boone humanely harvesting and skinning a single coon to make a well-worn cap have been superseded by the cruelties of factory farming, electrocution, live skinning and even the use of domestic dogs in modern fur manufacturing. When it comes to fur products (the majority of which, like all clothing, is made in China), the age of innocence is long past.

Why do we embrace the sign (the appearance of fur) while we reject the signified (the wearing of fur)?

In fact, for over a decade Gallup has conducted an annual Values and Belief survey using the same 18 questions as a kind of barometer of America’s evolving morality. Among the survey’s questions about the moral acceptability of divorce, abortion, birth control, gambling and the death penalty, is a question about buying and wearing clothing made of animal fur. From the beginning of the survey in 2001 to the most recent in 2012, those who find wearing fur “morally wrong” has consistently been about one-third (ranging from 31% to 39%).

Given that wearing real fur is viewed as morally wrong by so many, it is interesting that the semblance of fur remains so fashionable (even, I must confess, for this writer). Why do we embrace the sign (the appearance of fur) while we reject the signified (the wearing of fur)?

The insights of the French philosopher Jean Baudrillard about the “death of the real” are illuminating here. Baudrillard’s theories center on the various stages of simulacrum, or images and representations, which characterize different eras. Baudrillard postulates that the present, postmodern age is characterized by a proliferation of signs that have no referents, but are merely self-referential. In the past, signs stood for a real referent (the cross on a knight’s shield stood for his Christian faith, for example). But in a self-referential age like the one we now inhabit, faux fur doesn’t refer to real fur but merely to itself. (And just to make sure, the Humane Society of the United States recommends wearing another sign - this anti-fur button - to make it very clear.)

The rejection of “real” fur, given the cruel realities its production depends upon, is a welcome change. Yet, the preference for simulation over reality - what Baudrillard calls “the death of the real” - can be problematic, too. In relationships, art, sex, even life itself, the preference of the virtual or the sign can ultimately displace the real. But those of us who believe in the ability of the Word - the ultimate sign - to point to Truth - the ultimate signified - are well-equipped to bear witness to not only the existence of ultimate reality, but to the reasons it is far better than any simulation.

Topics: Culture At Large, Science & Technology, Philosophy, News & Politics, Social Trends