Fashion and Style, Inside the Museum

A Look into CHM’s Fur Vault

May 04 2015

Take a peek inside the Chicago History Museum’s fur vault with costume collections intern Amanda Cacich.

During the past six months, I’ve worked extensively with the objects in the Museum’s fur vault, which is essentially a walk-in refrigerator. I was tasked with completing an inventory of the vault’s contents, which meant several weeks of going through racks of luxurious fur coats owned by some of Chicago’s most affluent women and men. My efforts resulted in updated locations for all of the vault’s items, making them easily accessible for future generations of Museum staff.

While many of the items were made by high-end designers, including Christian Dior and Fendi, I was captured by the garments with a decidedly Chicagoan provenance, such as two pieces owned and worn by Miss Elizabeth F. Cheney (1902–85). Miss Cheney came from deep Chicago roots. She inherited the Cheney Mansion in Oak Park from her aunt and uncle, Andrew and Mary Dole, and founded the Elizabeth F. Cheney Foundation shortly before her death to support the arts and cultural institutions of Chicagoland, reflecting her lifelong interest in this field.

I have to provide a disclaimer that I, personally, am not particularly fond of the fur industry. But if I had to own a fur coat, it would be one of these. Now about those furs . . .

Woman’s coat of mink fur worn by Elizabeth F. Cheney, c. 1950. Gift of Mrs. Mary McMenamin, 1987.63.2. Photographs by CHM staff, unless otherwise noted

Picture it: Red-brown mink with silk lining and a shawl collar. This coat looks like it just came off the back of a 1950s Hollywood starlet, fitting for a garment that bears the label of an iconic Chicago institution.

Ms. Cheney had her initials embroidered on the silk lining of the coat, which also bears a Marshall Field & Company label.

In the 1950s when this coat was purchased, Marshall Field & Company was in its heyday. According to the store directory, the Fur Salon was on the sixth floor, where customers were treated to a lavish presentation that probably looked much like this window display.

Window display at Marshall Field & Company, Chicago, August 23, 1944. HB-08105-J, Hedrich Blessing collection, CHM

The second piece is a delicate stole, worn more for style than warmth, but it more than makes up for its small size. This piece is made from chinchilla fur, and in my opinion, it is the softest fur coat in the vault. Due to demand for both their ultra-luxurious pelts and the large number of these small animals required to make a fur garment, wild chinchillas are on the verge of extinction. With the rising protestations of animal rights groups like PETA and the development of realistic synthetic furs, real fur coats have largely fallen out of fashion in today’s society.

Although these objects might be a source of some controversy today, they offer a glimpse into the wardrobe of one stylish Chicago lady. Weaving a narrative together with these objects has been a pleasure.

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