The Monstrous Appeal of the Teddy CoatIn Depth
Image: Chelsea Beck
In a gas station in northern Maine, just a few miles from the Canadian border, I saw a handwritten sign advertising “Coyote Faces, $3.99.” I’m incapable of looking away from anything gross, an impulse that serves me poorly in my online life, and so I went closer. Hung from metal clips, I saw a dozen dirty looking scraps of brown fur. They were the deflated, eyeless, toothless faces of coyotes, skinned and hung, like something from a horror movie. I bought one. I don’t really know why—I think I bought it because it was real. A genuine piece of strangeness from a rural corner of the world. I still have it, but I don’t keep it on display. It makes me too sad.
I also have a dowdy navy blue canvas coat with a coyote fur trim from Woolrich. It’s down-filled and wax-rubbed. It’s the warmest thing I own. Were Animal Farm or Charlotte’s Web nonfiction, it would be the nightmare of many a sentient farmyard. This coat doesn’t make me sad unless I think about it too hard. It’s not like I own fur-fur. I’m not a monster.
A few months ago, I made a third furry purchase: I bought a “teddy coat.” It’s yellow-white and fluffy and 100 percent polyester. Unlike my other furs, this one is fake and looks it. It’s “shearling,” but not the kind made from dead sheep. It’s the kind made from fossil fuels. It isn’t that warm and it’s not that soft. It’s not even that practical, really, except it can survive a trip to the basement and around the spin cycle. Some people (my husband) find it ugly. And perhaps it is.
there’s a fluffy teddy coat to suit every lifestyle, from organic farmer to goth party girl
But ugly or not, the teddy coat is everywhere. You can variations of the style find on the backs of weekend warriors, urban gorpcore enthusiasts, artsy cloglife moms, glamorous Instagram influences, Hollywood celebrities, reality television stars, and my husband’s teenage students. These days, there’s a fluffy teddy coat to suit every lifestyle, from organic farmer to goth party girl.
The teddy coat’s ascension is well documented. According to Guy Trebay at the New York Times, the precipitating event occurred in 2013 when Ian Griffiths, designer at MaxMara, sent a model down the runway in an oversized brown coat made from alpaca and mohair. The item generated some interest, so Griffiths revisited the design in 2017. From there, it “sort of blew up,” Griffiths told the Times. This is an understatement. The coat went wild, reproducing and mutating everywhere, generating millions upon millions in revenue, spawning copycats at every level, becoming what Trebay deemed a “retailing monster.” Unlike most runway fashions, this particular design proved so popular that socialite Nicky Hilton Rothschild said you couldn’t “walk a city block now without seeing two or three of them.” She added, “I’ve never seen this happen with something this expensive… This is not a Von Dutch trucker hat we’re talking about.” (She would know—the Hilton sisters were both noted fans of the 2000s smash hit, which was beloved of ironic hipster racists everywhere.)
Can Nicky actually tell the difference between a MaxMara teddy coat and the legions of other such jackets on the market? Unless she sidled up to every well-heeled teddy-wearing femme she spotted on the street and actually felt their fluffy coat, I very much doubt it. There are some excellent fakes out there, which is funny to say because the MaxMara is a fake. It’s not fur. It may be made from animal products, but it’s still faux.
Fur coats aren’t usually made from alpaca and mohair—they’re made of pelts. A pelt is the skin of an animal that still has hair attached to it. A fur coat and a wool coat are both made of animal growth, but only one involves skinning the creature. We’ve been wearing animal pelts for as long as we’ve been human. A 2011 study of lice DNA from the University of Florida suggests that humans started wearing clothes 170,000 years ago, “a technology which enabled them to successfully migrate out of Africa,” notes the press release. We don’t know exactly what these first people were wearing, but considering the materials available to them, it’s safe to assume the first people wore fur. We also don’t know why they began covering their sensitive parts. Maybe it was because they were cold, but maybe it was because they believed fur had “contagious magic” that would grant the wearer the powers of the animal. If you wore a lion’s pelt, maybe you’d be blessed with the ferocity of the vanquished beast. Maybe you’d get a bit of their bite, an echo of their roar.
If you take the long view of things, fake fur is a rather new invention. It came onto the fashion scene in a meaningful way in the early 1900s. While I have no doubt that some enterprising knitters and tailors had tried to mimic the look of fur before the dawn of the 20th century, it wasn’t until the 1920s that manufacturers began to produce large quantities of faux fur, made out of pile fabric. According to Alice Hines at Smithsoninan.com, the demand rose in response to taxes. In 1919, the government slapped a 10 percent tax on real fur as part of wartime measures.
As fake furs became more commonplace, they also got better, more convincing, and more varied. “The girl on Sixth Avenue wants to look like the fashionable woman on Fifth, and we must help her find her way,” one expert told the New York Times in 1924, which meant they had to offer a variety of different faux furs. It wasn’t enough to just mimic mink. By the 1950s, faux furriers had produced synthetic leopard, gazelle, mole, beaver, chinchilla, seal, raccoon, ermine, pony, and giraffe. While the very earliest fake furs were meant to deceive, Hines notes that as the century wore on, magazines had begun featuring spreads with “bright, plush fabrics, no longer resembling real animals.”
By the 1960s, it was no longer considered déclassé or embarrassing to be caught wearing a fake fur. It was also no longer such an effective marker of status to be wearing a real one. While fashion and humor writers of the 1920s had loads of fun mocking the Sixth Avenue girl and her inability to procure genuine luxury goods, the goalposts had moved. Fur was still fashionable, but its symbolism had shifted slightly. Animal rights activists had made genuine fur appear a bit more unseemly. Starting in the 20th century, African American women began to have access to the kind of capital which means they could finally wear furs, too—just in time for fur to go out of fashion. As Jasmine Sanders argues, “there is a sense that this broader, cultural disavowal of fur has coincided with our increased ability to purchase it.”
While not a conspiracy, it was probably not a coincidence. Since the 1950s, technologies in fabric manufacturing have made it increasingly possible to produce very, very convincing fakes for relatively cheap, and wearing a plush, sleek, chocolate-brown, and eminently pet-able overcoat no longer marked you as definitively a member of the elite. For many, that was the entire point of owning fur. It meant you had “made it,” and, with the way America is set up, only a small number of people are allowed to have “made it” at any one time—generally white people. In the past five years, more and more fashion houses have announced that they are going fur-free, including Gucci and Maison Margiela. I strongly doubt this is for any ethical reason—there are plenty of items made animal parts still on offer, and these companies still reportedly participate in some pretty questionable practices, including forced labor—it’s just that they’ve decided fur is no longer fashionable. Fake fur, though, that can be fashionable. It is fashionable.
For the last 50 years, there have been two types of fake fur on the market. There is the fake fur that aspires to be real, and the fake fur that revels in its fakeness. The teddy coat seems to fall somewhere in between. None of the teddy coats I’ve seen actually look like shearling. Not the MaxMara version or the wildly popular I.AM.GIA boxy iteration or my Target-sourced bomber-style zip-up. They’re too nubby and too thin. They don’t drape like an animal pelt would. But the most popular versions come in animal-adjacent colors, like dark brown and lighter brown and yellow-brown and black. They are somewhat rugged, evoking a sense of old-timey toughness, but they wouldn’t keep Jon Snow warm on The Wall. They are somewhat glamorous, but they’re not nearly as sensual or sleek as, say, a Tsoukas sable-fur “Stroller Coat.” Teddy coats fall in between so many categories; they’re sort of adult, sort of childish, sort of fancy, sort of casual, sort of crunchy, sort of sexy, sort of trendy, sort of overplayed.
It’s far easier to explain my desire for a teddy coat than it is to explain my possession of a coyote face. Even though they’re both objects I’ve collected in attempts to change myself through ownership, one is socially acceptable and the other is not. The teddy coat appeals to me because it makes me look like a certain type of woman, one who goes hiking a lot but still smells good, who understands contemporary fashion and participates in wellness culture but wouldn’t fall for an essential oil MLM. I wear it to yoga class with my equally plastic leggings (that look like Outdoor Voices, but aren’t) and a t-shirt that I bought at Meow Wolf. This is the version of myself that is trying hard; it’s not the version of myself that is seeking comfort. The Times and Griffiths use the tried and true In Our Uncertain Times explanation for why the teddy coat took off. “It’s a big scary world, and nobody’s grown-up enough not to need something to cling to,” Griffiths told the paper of record.
According to some psychoanalysts, fur makes us think of genital hair, which would make the teddy coat one big symbolic merkin
Maybe the teddy coat is a fancy, expensive security blanket, more portable than a gravity blanket but doubtless a bit less effective. I also think there’s something primal that makes us respond to such obvious tactile cues. The teddy coat takes something that is usually used as a liner, a material that typically rests against the skin so it can touch you, and puts it on the outside, where other people can touch it. Fur, in general, seems to invite petting and stroking and space-invading. It’s a fetish object. According to some psychoanalysts, fur makes us think of genital hair, which would make the teddy coat one big symbolic merkin. French theorist Didier Anzieu wrote that fur “often plays a fetishistic role based on its resemblance to the body hair that conceals the genital organs,” and he later adds that fur can “represent the physical softness and sensual tenderness of a mother lovingly caring for her child.” In fur, we combine fear of being skinned, the child-like joy of being cared for, and the wholly adult interest in pubic hair. Furs aren’t just about warmth or class or fashion. Maybe we buy ourselves furs in order to fuck.
Fur has potency. It holds stories. It is haunted, just a little, by its history. I like the coyote face because it tells me something about my inward-facing self, about my predatory consumption of the world and its resources. This thing serves no practical purpose. It does not beautify my home or impress visitors. Instead, it reminds me that I want to be close to death, that I can be cruel, that I can look into empty eye sockets and see myself. It reminds me that almost all the things I buy are bullshit, objects made of plastic and cotton and dead animals, shipped to me from warehouses where people die on the job.
All these things are all destined, someday, for the landfill. I can’t imagine I’ll wear my cheap teddy coat forever, and I very much doubt the demand for these polyester pieces will continue to increase. One day, there will be piles of pile fabric waiting for the incinerator. One day, all my nice clothes and all my cheap clothes will be somewhere else, fatty deposits of excess clogging up the global machine. At least the coyote face will compost.