For 15 years or more, a boxy, black fur coat hung in the MERS Goodwill office in St. Louis.
It was jet-black and heavy, with long strands of what was originally thought to be gorilla fur. The shoulders were large and square, emblematic of late 1930s haute couture.
Monkey fur coats were made popular by Italian fashion designer Elsa Schiaparelli and were only for wealthier clientele. In the Depression era, fur coats sold for around $200-300.
“It was a status symbol,” said Jean Parsons, curator of MU’s Missouri Historic Costume and Textile Collection.
Today, the coat, which is actually made of colobus fur, would be worth thousands, if it were legal to sell.
Today, Parsons said, “for some people it might be a status symbol, and for some people it might be the other way around. They consider it a horrible thing to be wearing it.”
A colobus is a black monkey, found in central African forests, with a white fringe around its face and along its back. Some types of colobus monkeys are endangered, according to the St. Louis Zoo.
Goodwill could not legally sell the coat, so its staff reached out to the St. Louis Zoo, which was not interested, and then the Missouri Historic Costume and Textile Collection, part of the Department of Textile and Apparel Management within the College of Human Environmental Sciences.
The college will include the coat, the second colobus coat in its collection, in exhibits and instruction. In 2018, the other colobus coat was included in an exhibit called “Endangered: Fauna and Fashion.”
“The exhibit was all the ways that we use animal products in clothing, from wool to silk to fur,” Parsons said.
It’s tough to know much about the people who donate clothing to the collection besides, perhaps, socioeconomic status. Even then, it’s uncertain, Parsons said.
“Even if we have family information, we don’t know who purchased it, sometimes,” Parsons said. “We don’t know where it was purchased, often, unless there’s a store label in it.”
The colobus coat donated by Goodwill does not have a label, but the other colobus coat does. It reads: “Original Bencha Model: Gold Coast Monkey.”
It would have been sold at a department store or high-end fur dealer, Parsons said. Back then, Parsons said, fur dealers were common, and people would pay to keep their coats in cold storage for the summer. Some people still do today.
Extreme temperatures dry out the leather behind the hairs and damage the fibers. There can also be pest damage, but the Department of Textile and Apparel Management is careful about combatting that.
The colobus coat will join other mid and late-30s fashion items in the department’s collection: long and clingy, bias-cut dresses, dresses with batwing sleeves and broad shoulders and narrow suits, and hats and gloves.
Almost every student in the program — about 80 to 100 students per semester — will get to see the furs as part of a required textile history class.