Fur Coats and Jewelry:
Rationality or Ritual?
I encounter in this essay the extreme likelihood of igniting in the females who read it sentiments ranging from slight annoyance to outright enragement. These predispositions are all too foreseeable, as I intend to challenge, with characteristic dauntlessness, a central tenet of modern—and ancient—fashion. Being a philosopher of Reason, for whom no undertaking is justified without rigorous proof, and also being unmarried, I can permit myself to proceed with this heretical treatise in a state of intellectual and physical impunity. What has confounded me for the majority of my mature lifetime is a phenomenon that few dare to explain and to which everyone has lost at least several thousand dollars.
The scenario can best be pictured thus: women pay cosmeticians hundreds of monetary units to drive needles through their ears, risk inflammation of the ear lobes for a month while the wound is still fresh, in the meantime having to clog these wounds with peculiar ornamented metal objects that they must retain in place for the entire duration of the endangering timeframe, lest their volitionally inflicted punctures become fused again in accord with the body’s automatic scheme of response to infringements upon the integrity of its texture. What do they do this for? For what reason do they sleep at night with the discomforting, sometimes even painful, pressing of not-all-too-smooth pieces of metal against the sides of their heads? So that, for the remainder of their lives, they can brandish heavier, more dangling pieces of metal that must introduce quite a load upon their ear lobes! Moreover, upon the marriages of these women and any further significant celebratory occasions, their husbands must provide them with gold, silver, and/or diamond rings/necklaces/bracelets costing upwards of $1500, though almost visually identical items can be purchased for $50, under the condition that they be crafted from colored glass and gold polish. It seems that these women are not satisfied with the prospective $1450 amplification to their family budgets. It this is not enough, these bejeweled females venture to spend their own money on the purchase of lavish fur coats, which offer no greater protection from the cold than any formidable overcoat, while having been manufactured of the same material worn across the loins by cavemen savages ten thousand years ago. And this, this obsession with animal skins and hair, is deemed the height of prestige, refinement, and… culture!
One need not exaggerate to be absolutely confounded in regard to such a curious state of affairs. Every one of my readers has witnessed it around himself daily.
And, to add a no less peculiar factor, this phenomenon is not the product of the decadence of modern aesthetics and fashion. It has existed since the most ancient of Earth’s civilizations, and, for the largest part, the female gender has been the one allured by it. All this raises the ever-probing “Why?” Might there be a justification, expressible in logical terms, as to why women under these rites of seeming self-sacrifice, and why women undergo them?
The core of such an explanation (if present) would lie in the fifth branch of philosophy, aesthetics, the study of universal beauty and its subcategory, “human grooming,” i.e., the application of such understanding to the amelioration of human bodily characteristics. (This is the most fitting title that I can give it, as “fashion” connotes popular acceptance of and shifting trends, whereas true beauty is independent of those; it is not in the eye(s) of the beholder(s), as the militantly uncertain, deliberately ignorant relativist would claim.) Objects of beauty are those mathematically constructed to render an aspect of life, material or intellectual, more conductive to the selfish survival interests of human beings. As I explained in “An Essay on the Genuine Meaning of Beauty,” the closer a matter is in mathematical precision and complexity to man and the man-made, the greater beauty is contained in it. Thus, we are revolted by the sheer deformity and parasitism of the mosquito, are sometimes eager to pet and play with a dog (though wary for ticks and an abundance of dirt), and admire the comparative symmetry and functionality of the human body. But even that is marred by imbalance, imperfect texture, and certain regions repugnant to the eyes. To conceal such bodily inadequacies, men wear clothing, which renders their form more symmetrical, geometrical, and pleasant. Cosmetics and medical treatments are capable of correcting further defects, whereas simple hygiene can vanquish still others. Thus, the purpose of these items is logically fathomable. As for jewelry, where does it fit in the realm of aesthetic self-amelioration?
Abandoning immediately the folksy superstition of medical uses for it or its constituent particles, we proceed to classify jewelry among those items that render the human form more visually pleasurable and supplement its abundance of mathematical precision and finesse. Indeed, certain items of jewelry (though not all, especially modern savage-imitating chunks of uncut metal, tattered string, or cowhide) are works of masterful craftsmanship and diligent design. It is understandable that a finger, with its natural folds and wrinkles, is rendered of far greater interest when decorated by a lustrous ring with perhaps a polyhedronally shaped stone along its surface. A similar argument can be made for bracelets and necklaces, with a noteworthy uniting characteristic: neither of these items necessarily inflicts any pain or bodily discomfort upon its wearer while providing her with an aesthetic bonus. Earrings, however, are a class apart. Their function is not merely to be attached onto or over the body, but through it in a manner that is detrimental rather than ameliorating to its geometry. If the earring is a clip-on and a mere compact stud, it becomes quite similar to a ring/necklace/bracelet and turns into another painless embellishment. Yet if, as most women seem to prefer, it necessitates actual puncture, not only does it mutilate the ear by disrupting its consistency of texture, but it, in the case of a dangling earring, impedes the ear’s utility, curtailing its aerodynamic character by causing it to constantly drag behind itself a swinging object oft more massive than its support. Moreover, visually, the dangling earring seems to hearken back to the days of pre-colonial Mesoamerica, when the decadent, vicious anti-aesthetics of the Mayas and Aztecs impelled them to idolize artificially lengthened earlobes (all the way to jaw level!) along with flattened crania and tar-stained teeth.
Earrings are only in degree distanced from the barbaric ancient Chinese practice of foot binding, wherein noblewomen’s feet were shrunk beyond utility for the sake of purported “beauty,” which the arrested Chinese culture derived not from utility, action, and movement (as do the West and Reason), but from disutility, self-suspension, and idleness. Foot binding, after all, was intended as a demonstration that the parasitic life of the female Chinese aristocrat did not even necessitate the employment of one’s own feet! Similarly will the question be posed here: can a woman work more efficiently, with fewer impediments, while wearing earrings, or do the latter, on the contrary, encumber her, if only slightly? We know already the answer: whereas other items of jewelry offer no such disservice to movement, earrings are certainly counterproductive. And where form does not follow function, mathematics as applicable to objective human self-interest, i.e. beauty, does not exist.
It is my hypothesis that earrings are themselves a relic of older despotic and feudal times, when noblewomen in the Occident (who were the only females able to afford them) were generally kept sequestered from the public sphere of activity. What explains the comparatively mild hindrance inflicted upon them is the fact that the West, even in its darkest periods, had endowed females with a degree of liberty and dignity unprecedented in any other culture. Roman matrons and medieval ladies were intensely occupied, though only within the confines of their villas and castles. Their husbands having been away, attending to tasks of statesmanship and warfare, they were the de facto managers and coordinators of immense estates. Thus, to bind their feet or cripple them permanently in any manner would have been an economically suicidal blunder that even the patriarchal ancients and unenlightened medievals could not have spotted.
We shift now to the question of diamonds and their possible justification or lack thereof. What aspects does a diamond possess that would render it of utility to man? It is the most durable naturally encountered material and thus has an immense array of technological and commercial applications. A diamond saw will reform even the sturdiest metal in accordance with man’s wishes. But do a woman’s wishes for a diamond ring demonstrate similarly sturdy reasoning? A diamond ring is permanent—as concerns the context of a human lifetime; it is not wonder that the slogan of DeBeers is “A diamond is forever.” Permanence permits a woman to possess a given embellishment without concern over its forthcoming disintegration. But if thirty rings of a more perishable character can be purchased for the same money, will they, too, not last that woman a lifetime, provide the same outward appearance, hence, the same aesthetic effect (which, after all, is the purpose of items of jewelry), and simultaneously leave her with vaster present monetary resources to spend elsewhere?
Though the quest for permanence is admirable, in the realm of diamonds it encounters quite costly circumstances. In the status quo, the prices of these precious stones are colossally inflated. The market is dominated by a single legal mining firm, DeBeers, while the remainder of harvested diamonds is smuggled into the First World by terroristic warlords, whose prices are higher than those of DeBeers and who, being plunderers, not traders, add no economic stimulus to the diamond market that could have heightened competition and reduced prices to more reasonable figures than $1500 for a miniature rock, however durable or well-cut. Were a second era of African industrialization fueled by a presently non-existent (due to the plague of local dictatorships and tribalism) Western investment enthusiasm, undertaken, DeBeers would have been faced with healthy economic rivalry that would have driven diamond prices down to a level legitimately accessible to the non-spendthrifts among us. But, for the time being, women seem to be satisfied with the diamond expenditures incurred by their husbands. For some, the very fact that their husbands have spent these vaults of money for their rings is even interpreted as a sign of prestige!
That above mentality is, in fact, irrational. Would those women not rather prefer a swifter payment on their mortgages, or a reliable automobile, or an enjoyable item of high-tech entertainment? They could have had any one of them, were they to abstain from deliberately expensive, artificially exotic rarities (the world’s supply of diamonds substantially larger than the quantities extracted and traded). While they do not, and while neocolonialism is not yet imminent, DeBeers will see no reason to modify its prices; demand is high, supply—artificially kept low. If demand were to fade even for a period of several months, prices would plummet considerably, perhaps not to the maximum possible extent, but likely still to levels underneath the $1000 mark. My suggestion is simple, a peaceful, voluntary, individual boycott of precious stones and costly jewelry until, say, the terminus of 2003, during which time no participant woman shall be aesthetically deprived (as cheaper items will still be available to her) while receiving gargantuan long-term economic benefits.
In the realm of fur coats exists a similar state: synthetic materials, available for a far lower price, provide a closely resembling, if not identical, external image. But unlike the case of diamonds, there is no near-monopoly to inflate prices and no valid pretext (such as durability or permanence) to pursue what are in fact puffy animal skins. Quite the contrary, fur prices are colossal solely because of customer demand, while their texture is severely vulnerable to moths, dirt, and time. In the realm bodily coverage and protection from the elements, fur coats are therefore less fittingly constructed than even a plain winter jacket! As for aesthetic representation and the amelioration of the human form, it shall be instructive to recall that what is closer to the animal is farther removed from man and the man-made and, hence, distanced from beauty. The further processed and reformed a portion of a plant or animal becomes, the greater claims it can offer to man-made status. But furs are oft worn without any (or many) alterations of the skins’ appearance. Yes, the hides are cleaned and brought into a state of hygienic acceptability, but a particularly tidiness-loving caveman could have done as much with his garb. Thus, the obsession with the primeval, ephemeral, and inefficient only distances a woman from beauty and rationality. I am not an environmentalist and I scorn propagators of “animal rights,” but the obsession with furs in this technological age strikes me as outright absurd.
On a historical note, consumption of fur coats has not historically been dominated by female connoisseurs, but was rather comprised of aristocrats and elitists of all genders and cultures. The popularity and usage of furs has faded, especially in the centuries following the Industrial Revolution. We no longer witness the spectacle of Russian boyars draped in them almost entirely, nor even of the once ubiquitous coonskin caps. Perhaps furs have subsisted through the ages as a mere atavistic remnant of the time when the tribal chieftain had worn the puffiest coat, since this was the sole possession that distinguished him from his similarly impoverished subjects.
A reality-consistent aesthetic analysis shall permit us to answer the final part of my inquiry, namely, “Why women?” Males in all eras have only been attracted to jewelry moderately, to the level perhaps of a simple heavy ring or a concealed necklace; anything beyond that has never quite gained widespread acceptance. Females, on the other hand, have always been decked with jewelry with never a reluctance nor a protest.
To comprehend this, it is necessary to grant that body structures of the genders are inherently distinct. Equal they may be, but greatly varied they surely are. The body of the male is more streamlined and angular, whereas that of the female is more gradual and curvilinear. Each requires aesthetic supplements corresponding to its form. The female body is capable of harmoniously assimilating a greater quantity of ornamentation due to the more extensive variety present in its geometry. It is therefore fit for a myriad of shapes of jewelry, the cylinder of the ring, the ellipse of the bracelet, the double-arch of the necklace, most of which would simply not coexist with the male body so as not to clash with its biological features. On the male, only a large, plain ring or a light, unadorned necklace is consistent with his monolithic, uniform, straight-planed composition. Of this, except by the playboys and decadents, there has been an implicit recognition in all civilized cultures (from which we exclude Pre-Columbian Native Americans, as they do not fit this criterion). The fact that this realization was only implicit, led to the greater vulnerability of the gender most closely linked with jewelry, the female gender, toward fallacious and irrational applications thereof. In order to forestall further such awkward absurdities, our philosophy must not tremble at the prospect of championing an objective aesthetics and a rational, financially sound approach to jewelry.
If my female readers still wish to scathingly assail my writing for this suggestion of improvement to their own lives, I render it open to their criticisms.
G. Stolyarov II is an actuary, science fiction novelist, independent philosophical essayist, poet, amateur mathematician, composer, contributor to Enter Stage Right, Le Quebecois Libre, Rebirth of Reason, and the Ludwig von Mises Institute, Senior Writer for The Liberal Institute, former weekly columnist for GrasstopsUSA.com, and Editor-in-Chief of The Rational Argumentator, a magazine championing the principles of reason, rights, and progress. Mr. Stolyarov’s new blog, The Progress of Liberty, offers a combination of commentary, multimedia presentations, educational materials, and suggestions for effective activism in favor of individual freedom. Mr. Stolyarov also publishes his articles on Helium.com and Associated Content to assist the spread of rational ideas. He holds the highest Clout Level (10) possible on Associated Content. Mr. Stolyarov has also written a science fiction novel, Eden against the Colossus, a non-fiction treatise, A Rational Cosmology, and a play, Implied Consent. You can watch his YouTube Videos. Mr. Stolyarov can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Statement of Policy.
Learn about Mr. Stolyarov's novel, Eden against the Colossus, here.