Sable might be today’s uncontested king of luxury furs, but historically, ermine was the status quo fur for royalty, and the most sought-after fur for court presentations and official portraiture.
A Symbol of Purity
Ermine, as it turns out, became linked with Western European courts due to a symbolic legend. According to it hunters seeking the highly prized fur of the small animal would smear the entrance of its lair with mud, then begin the hunt. Tired and exhausted after a long chase, the ermine would flee to its home, only to find the mud on the entrance-way. Rather than sully its coats by running through the filth, the ermine would give itself up to the hunters and dogs who had followed it. Thus the ermine became associated with phrases such as Death before Defilement, and Death rather than Dishonor (an ermine would “rather die than be defiled/soiled”, as translated from the Latin, “potius mori quam foedari”). Hence its representation of royal “moral purity.”
The Choice of Fur For Royalty
Ermine was the status quo fur for royalty, and the most sought-after fur for court presentations and official portraiture. European monarchs used ermine and art as a projection of power and wealth from the onset of their reign.
Fur as a fashion phenomenon flourished in Western Europe between the 10th and 19th centuries. The bourgeoisie, the elites holding positions of power and authority, the rapidly increasing wealthy mercantilists and industrialists all strived to imitate the nobility in matters of fashion by dressing themselves and their wives in luxurious furs.
In the early days the finest skins were obtained from the rich plateau of the Taurus (present day Turkey). Marco Polo in his book of travels recounts ermine as among the most costly dress of the Tartars and remarks that he found the tents of the Cham of Tartary lined with skins of ermine and sables in the year 1252.
A Projection of Power
Spectacular coronation portraits displayed in museums today show how effectively European monarchs used ermine and art as a projection of power and wealth from the onset of their reign. If a picture is worth a thousand words, coronation portraits bellowed clearly and loudly who was in charge symbolically and physically from that moment on.
One of the most extravagant examples of Royal/Imperial might and splendor was Catherine II of Russia, better known as Catherine the Great. The “accidental” ascendance of this relatively minor Prussian princess to the Russian Imperial throne through a well-orchestrated coup d’état (including the death of her husband) is full of drama and intrigue. What Catherine (b. Sophie Auguste Frederike von Anhalt-Zerbst) lacked in birthright, she easily overcame once at the helm of the Russian throne.
Her taste for grandeur and excess brought her to devise one of the most extravagant coronations in history. Her 1762 coronation train was a whopping extravaganza of ermine trimmed and gold embroidered velvet that required 6 chambermaids to help navigate throughout the ceremony.
How Its Made
If you have ever wondered how the royal cloaks are made here is the secret. They are made by sewing many ermine furs together to produce a luxurious white fur. The black dots that you see throughout the cloak is a pattern made by sewing in the hanging black-tipped tails of the ermine.
The Legend Lives On
Ermine maintains its rare and exclusive position in both royal events and fashion today and its influence is reflected in portrait galleries and museums around the world as well as conceptually in current collections.