I’m not much for fur, but chinchilla has always fascinated me. I think it is the name. It’s just so darn cute! It sounds like a name Disney would invent for an animal.
I’m never really thought about what a chinchilla actually was until recently. When I did begin to wonder, I had to look it up.
The chinchilla is a rodent from South America. It looks like this:
It’s a fat little mouse with extra big ears and a squirrel tail!
I think they were invented by Disney!
Really, could you get any cuter if you tried?
I think we need to see more cuteness:
Of course, in fashion they aren’t concerned with how gosh darn cute the fat little mice with big ears and fluffy squirrel tails are. They are concerned with how soft and dense the fur is, because they kill and skin those gosh darn cute fat little big-eared, fluffy-tailed mice for it.
Natural chinchilla fur is pale grey with a dark streak running along the tail, and incredibly soft and plush, because each hair follicle sprouts an average of 8 hairs. It is so soft and dense that chinchillas should not get wet – their thick hair traps the moisture, and they develop mold and skin rot.
The fur is so lovely that 16th century Spanish explorers in South America immediately noted the possibilities of the fur and started the fashion for it. Chinchilla went in and out of fashion over the next three centuries, and saw its greatest craze in the 2nd half of the 19th century, where cloaks and mantles were lavishly lined and trimmed in it.
It was so popular that over-hunting caused the extinction of one species of chinchilla and the other species were both very rare by the end of the Victorian era. Chinchilla were so rare that the death of the only known chinchilla in North America in 1908 made international news.
The rarity led to the early 20th century development of the Chinchilla rabbit in France as a cheaper, more widely available, imitation chinchilla fur. It also had the benefit of being a meat species. The chinchilla rabbit, combined with the scarcity of the chinchilla, led to a rapid drop in the export of chinchilla fur from South America – 20,000 furs were exported from Chile in 1900, only 150 in 1925.
The drop in chinchilla exports certainly wasn’t because chinchilla was no longer fashionable. 1925 saw another peak in the chinchilla craze, with those who could afford it draping themselves in loose coats trimmed in chinchilla fur.
Notice how the coat above is ermine trimmed in chinchilla? That’s because real chinchilla was the most expensive and exclusive fur available in the 1930s. Those who had less resources had to content themselves with chinchilla rabbit. It wasn’t until 1929 that the popularity of chinchilla, real and rabbit (and all other furs) declined slightly. It’s return was hailed periodically throughout the 1930s as a sign that the depression was over, but both the end of economic hard times, and the return of chinchilla, were wishful thinking on the part of fashion editors.
Today it is illegal to hunt wild chinchilla, and chinchilla fur for the fashion industry is farmed. The popularity of chinchilla has been in steady decline since 1930. There was a brief revival in the 1970s, but people have been less inclined to wear fur in general. Today chinchillas are often pets rather than fashion accessories.
Anyone ever had a chinchilla or interacted with one as a pet? What are they like?
O’Hara, Georgina, The Encyclopedia of Fashion: From 1840 to the 1980s. London: Thames and Hudson Ltd. 1986