WASHINGTON - Sandra Berry throws on a fur cape without looking at the price tag. "Oh, it feels great," she purrs, charging it to her credit card. She pulls the wrap tighter in the chilly lobby of the Ritz-Carlton hotel, where a temporary fur salon is serving inauguration guests.
It takes five minutes to sell this ... mink? Sable? Chinchilla?
"I don't even know what it is," the Detroit visitor says. "I just know I need it."
(For the record, it's fox. And the price? Twice her guess of, "I don't know - $2,000?")
Snow was falling in the capital yesterday, but it was the flurry of fur coats, hats and earmuffs that proved the real force of nature. Fur salons around the city reported brisk emergency sales, concierges described hunting down fur shops to find loaner minks, and visitors who had traveled light were having their full-length mink coats express-mailed to their hotels.
At the presidential inauguration today, amid predictions of freezing winds and possible flurries, the crowd will be thick with Republicans in fur coats, ponchos, hats, scarves. By the evening's balls, those animals will change shape, becoming capelets, stoles, boas.
Shortly after the 2004 election, President Bush declared his win a mandate, and now his supporters are reveling in Washington with one of their own: to unabashedly display their pelts. To some, it's a rebellion against political correctness. To others, an expression of loyalty to Republican trickle-down economics. To more, a chance to enjoy a fashion moment.
Purchase in a hurry
A handful, like Berry, are buying their furs on the run. The wife of the chief lobbyist for General Motors snatched hers up at a mini-salon by the entrance of the Ritz hotel. The impromptu shop, open only for inauguration week, is stocked with Saks Fifth Avenue furs.
Berry, who won't watch the inaugural parade outside (she'll be indoors at a Pennsylvania Avenue party), bought her cape while the hotel's front doors swung open and gusts of cold air and exhaust blew in from the limo stand. She hardly seemed fazed, though, reporting that she needed the wrap because she had left her mink at home.
To other revelers, there's an even better reason to wear fur: because they can.
"It's cold, yes," says Linda Knight, a Texan in a white mink who was sightseeing with friends, "but that's not why we're wearing our fur. We're wearing it because we want to!"
Democrats rail against the inauguration-week furs as a show of wealth, opulence, unapologetic consumption - though it bears noting that some of them are wearing furs while they make that argument. Fashion historians call the fur a nod to a retro sensibility emerging today, a throwback to a time when fur wasn't a political statement, it was a luxury item.
The pelts are, of course, bipartisan. The furs popularized by movie stars on the red carpet - can anyone say Hollywood liberal? - cover Democrats and Republicans alike. But their abundance here this week presents fur, at least temporarily, as a GOP mascot.
"It's an emblem of status," says Steven Zucker, a professor at the Fashion Institute of Technology. "In that way, it has become an identification for a kind of ruling class."
With so much fur around town, some cloth-coat Republicans are feeling outnumbered.
"I've had three phone calls from concierges specifically for people from Texas who want a fur coat right away - they're all supporting the president and they're thinking they need to wear their fur," says Keith Jarrell, a salesman at Gartenhaus furs in Bethesda.
"There was a lady who purchased a coat yesterday; she kept her limousine waiting, she came in, bought the coat, rushed out and her car drove off - she was gone in 10, maybe 12 minutes."
Janiece Blair has been waiting for a chance like this, a time to revel in her furs instead of apologizing for them. The 70-year-old Republican owns three sheared minks - one dyed green - and never would have worn them to such blue-state bastions as New York City in the past. Now, though, she's proudly wearing hers across state lines.
"I think people have gotten over the animal-rights thing," says Blair, a self-proclaimed animal lover from Northern Virginia. "It's wrong to wear your beliefs on your sleeve if you think women shouldn't wear mink. Besides, what are mink? I mean, people don't have them as pets. Remember a few years ago? Some mink farmer had a terrible catastrophe where the minks got out of the cages and they raised havoc because they're just - well, nobody wants them."
The pressure is on animal-rights activists to answer such pro-fur pronouncements.
"Mink are really interesting animals - I think if people had a chance to get to know a mink they wouldn't say something like that," says Dan Shannon, an activist with the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, when told of such comments against (living) minks.
In recent days the animal-rights group sent a letter to Bush after reports that a Colorado hat maker sent a beaver-felt cowboy hat as a gift for his inauguration.
"You may not realize that beavers are gentle, family-oriented animals who mate for life, raise their children in loving families and remain lifelong friends with their offspring," PETA head Ingrid Newkirk wrote the president. "Beavers are even known to enjoy flute music."
Animal-rights activists plan to leaflet outside the balls tonight. Four years ago, they cheered a woman who ran naked down the parade route with an anti-fur sign.
Signal of affluence
Fur sales are up this season, aided by a big business in fuzzy accessories. To some fashion observers, the fur, even when marketed in trendier styles for younger customers, sends the same message that it always has: that its wearer is well-off, cared-for, comfortable.
"If you think back to the 1950s, you could see it in the old I Love Lucy's - when the woman got a mink stole, it was an indication of moving up in the world," says Pam Klein, who oversees a fashion studies and marketing program at the Parsons School of Design in New York (and notes that she is both a Democrat and wears a sheepskin shearling coat to work).
"With the inauguration, it's kind of like the opposite of saving money - it's saying that spending money and having money are OK," she says. "In my mother's generation, it was saving money that gave you some moral authority, but that has kind of been redefined."
In Washington, guests are renting $12,000 furs for about $500 a night, says Ritz-Carlton concierge Michael High, who arranged one such rental this week. He also helped several out-of-town guests have their coats rushed out to them in time for tonight's parties.
To many visitors, the chance to wear fur, like an inauguration, is a rare moment.
"We live in a climate where it's probably below freezing three days a year," says Kay Bonner, a resident of Temple, Texas, snuggling in a brown mink she otherwise wears about three times a year. The first-time inaugural reveler said she packed a wool coat just in case fur protesters were swarming around the capital. She needn't have bothered.
"We do acknowledge this is probably not the most contemporarily correct thing to wear - we are risking disfavor," she says. "But we have them. And we want to wear them."