New York's Fur District, a gritty extension of the Garment Center, is one of the least pretentious quarters of the city. Uncharismatic and rather tatty, it would be a perfect setting for a black-and-white movie about backstage life. My furrier, G., moved here from his sleepy Upper East Side HQ. I like how real it feels, but I miss the street-level shop that felt, in some respects, like a village post office.
Stroking the lapel of a knee-length honey-coloured mink, I contemplate a potential addition to my small family of furs. How would it get on with its elder siblings? Steal the show? Suddenly my best fur coat, a long ranch mink I wear twice a year, seems stuffy. I used to wear it five days a week.
In April, I think of Persephone. I'm sending my coat to the underworld for storage and glazing and I feel like a mother dropping off her first-born at boarding school. It's a relief to know that somebody else is responsible for my fur until winter. (I tend to wait until December to collect, in denial about how cold it's getting.)
G. was forced out of his cozy boutique by a real-estate boom. He seems to be settling for a far less intimate domain on the third floor of this drab, generic building. He shares space with another furrier, but G.'s nanny-like manner – caring and observant – prevents me from straying. Without apparent effort, he retains the aura of the old neighbourhood boutique: $150 mink earmuffs in the window, astronomically priced sable on a back wall.
The light brown fur beneath my fingers is smooth and short, a contrast to the longer hair on my ranch mink – which is still, despite my impatience, the favourite child. The first time I wore it outdoors, an admirer remarked that my coat matched my hair.
Freud taught us to understand our handbags: sexual but symbolic. A fur coat is a more literal reminder of the female body because of how it feels against skin – and how it looks when a woman opens her garment. While your handbag represents the corridor to your womb, a fur coat evokes the lush surface, a distraction from what's inside. Unlike the interior of a woman's handbag, a fur isn't sacred, and fur has no privacy.
In New York, fur is openly coveted and publicly reviled, though I think people misunderstand its appeal. Walking is more common than owning a car in Manhattan, and many women don't possess a driver's licence, so a fur coat isn't always a luxury.
Ordinary fur owners aren't that surprised (or affected) by anti-fur celebrities. Stella McCartney and Pamela Anderson get driven around. They never have to fight for a taxi on a freezing afternoon when all the drivers are off-duty, racing back to the garage to change shifts. Much less take the bus in January. Of course they're anti-mink! Rejecting fur is an expression of privilege, an ostentatious commentary on your transportation options.
Some say that fur will become passé. At the same time, pubic hair is disappearing from the Manhattan landscape. Is there a connection? Does that mean fur will be rarer? More expensive? I finally peek at the price tag: $7,500.
Five years ago, pubic hair became the new garter belt. Boyfriends and husbands opposed to its eradication were like men who once bitched about the invention of pantyhose. The New York Observer quoted an ex-pat Brit who didn't police her pubes as being made to feel "like a hobbit". In a panicky New York Magazine essay, Naomi Wolf complained about the twenty-somethings at her gym who were trimmed and styled "like porn stars".
Is there a middle line between unkempt hobbits and wannabe harlots? We live in a city of contrasts, with million-dollar condos abutting rent-control tenements. The weather is equally absurd. While frigid winters cause some girls to salivate over animal pelts, in summertime any body part that stays covered in the New York heat must be waxed clean, and skilled beauticians are hired to provide our skin with 24/7 air conditioning. But the look has year-round appeal because nude labia done right is a status indicator. You're not just removing some hair – you're maintaining a lifestyle. Some of us preserve an emblematic strip or triangle, trimmed short. A lot of thought goes into it, and everybody has an opinion.
At a launch party for the Encyclopedia of Prostitution, I encounter an exotic dancer who argues that the complete Brazilian – without that tarty bit of topiary – "is making us all look fat".
That's a bit sweeping, but I have to concede that a totally nude pussy demands a well-honed six-pack: the naked equivalent of matching your purse to your shoes. The emblematic triangle creates a tailored effect, and slims you down if you don't have a perfect abdomen.
If the unmanicured mons veneris resembles a fur, today's high-maintenance muff – lasered or waxed – has more in common with a microfibre rain jacket: sleek, modern, easy to clean.
The sensation is a luxurious one, and therefore addictive. Even those who don't remain forever bare find that hair is much softer when it grows back. The result for some is a layer of silky pubes where they used to be coarse or curly, smoother intercourse, less friction.
Those who think waxing is about pleasing a man are mistaken, for it's one of the most self-indulgent things a woman can do. It takes longer to reach an orgasm when you sport a curtain of unwaxed pubic hair, and it's refreshing to expose your nerve-endings to a new sensation. It costs money, about $100 every two weeks. Men aren't the only ones shelling out cash in pursuit of sexual pleasure, but the way women spend money on sex is more subtle.
I fondle the sleeves and pet the surface. The fur feels different because it's been sheared. As G. points out, "It's less formal, not so furry." Sheared mink reflects the way our lives have changed: "Nobody wants that overdone look. That heavy feeling."
We wear our fur the way we wear our pubic hair – rather lightly. Fur keeps evolving, even when it appears to recede or devolve.