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Thrift Shopping: dead-critter couture


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When granny was a good-time girl, back in the conscienceless 20s, women (and men) wore their furs like trophies. The well-turned-out flapper sported a flat chest, a boyish bob, and a whole, dead fox around her neck. The creature's leg would dangle, paws and claws intact, from her modest bosom, while its little glass eyes stared accusingly from a perch on her shoulder. "I'm dead," they would say, "and she doesn't care." It was snuff dressing, and it wasn't a passing fancy. Two decades later, granny was still tossing carcasses--preferably mink or sable--over her perfectly proper Mainbocher suits and trotting off, looking meaner than a biker in leather and studs, to preside over the PTA.

Granny's killer couture had roots in a 16-century accessory known as the flea fur. According to Melissa Simmons in her primer Buying and Caring for Your Fabulous Fur, clothing was elaborate then but hygiene was not. With baths less frequent than trysts, even the most discriminating aristocrats could be colonized by lice. To lure the vermin from their farthingales, they would throw some bait--say, a freshly killed squirrel--around their necks. The flea fur worked on the same principle as the roach motel and was reusable: shake it out at night, and it was ready for the next day's wear.

In these delicate times, however, the dead critter scarf has become a backroom item in many resale shops. We spotted four or five in varying states of nattiness at the Unique Thrift Store, 4112 N. Lincoln, running between $30 and $40 each. Call 281-1590. Down the street at the Chicago Antique Mall, 3045 N. Lincoln, there's an even better example: a quintet of sweet brown mink, eternally nipping at each other's tails, going for $25. Call 929-0200.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Cynthia Howe.

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