“Thorough tatter’d clothes [small] vices do appear,
Robes and furt’d gowns hide all.”
“You are for dreams and slumbers, brother priest,
You fur your gloves with reason.”
(Troilus and Cressida)
In Elizabethan times, The Crown wanted to keep business and wealth within England. In “The rise and fall of sumptuary laws: Rules for dressing in Shakespeare’s England,” Karen Lyon tells us that “the consumption of foreign goods such as silk and furs ensured that its subjects would ‘buy local.’” It was frowned upon to overindulge in foreign goods, so it makes sense that clothing could be revelatory of “small vices,” as mentioned in the King Lear quote above.
“The Fabric’s The Thing: Literal and Figurative References to Textiles in Selected Plays of William Shakespeare“ by Nancy J. Owens and Alan C. Harris provides us with a snapshot of fur’s role in Shakespeare’s time: “The common people in the Elizabethan period typically wore mittens trimmed, if at all, with inexpensive furs such as cat or badger skins. The gentry often wore leather gloves and other items of clothing trimmed with expensive furs such as ermine or sable. In the second quotation the reasons given to the king’s son, Helenus, by his brother, Troilus, for not going to battle come in the form of a two-fold compliment: Not only are you of nobler birth and aspiration but you have more intelligence than to go out to war.”
In Clothing in Elizabethan England, Liza Picard writes about the way that furs got caught up in England’s clothing laws: “Furs in bewildering variety were similarly controlled. Elizabeth and her favourite the Earl of Leicester enjoyed the softness of sables. She had hers from an unexpected source – Ivan the Terrible, Tsar of Russia, who sent them, as well as two ermine gowns, with a proposal of marriage. She kept the furs but refused the proposal.”