For Your Consideration This Winter: The Muff

Allow me to make the case for the once-fashionable, now-antiquated, impossibly posh hand warmer.

For Your Consideration This Winter: The Muff
Barbra Streisand dressed in white with a mink fur hat and trimmings, December 1969. Photo:Michael Ochs Archives / Stringer (Getty Images)

Samantha Parkington was born in 1895, only to be orphaned five years later when her parents were tragically killed in a boating accident. After their untimely deaths, she moved in with and was cared for by her grandmother and uncle in Mount Bedford, New York. As a young girl she enjoyed embroidery, painting, public speaking, and playing the piano. Her favorite accessories were a heart-shaped locket, a doll pram, and a white fur muff (with matching hat!). The moment I laid my eyes on that muff in the first grade, I knew I needed one for myself. Oh, I should clarify that Samantha Parkington is an American Girl doll.

I didn’t own a Samantha Parkington doll, but I ended up with something much more cherished: a real life hand muff. That winter my mom kindly sewed me my own muff made of black faux fur from Joann Fabrics. It had an attached knitted string so it could hang from my neck when my 6-year-old hands inevitably wandered. In my young mind it was the epitome of high class. Like saddle shoes or a poodle skirt, the hand muff scratched my itch for girlish nostalgia of yesteryear.

Two women skating hand-in-hand in a London park in 1919. Photo:A. R. Coster (Getty Images)

But why are muffs an accessory of the past? Why isn’t every Brooklyn fashion-devotee waiting on the train platform with their hands tucked into a cozy fabric hot pocket during the freezing winter months? My 32-year-old self could certainly benefit from such a romantic hand warmer, just as my 6-year-old self did. So I set out, lantern in hand, through the blizzarding conditions, to find answers to my questions. Of course, to know where something has gone, one must understand from where it first came.

“Lovely to hear from a fellow muff afficionado,” Beatrice Belhen wrote in her email to me. Immediately I was comforted by the assurance that I was amongst my people. Behlen is the Senior Curator of Fashion and Decorative Arts at the Museum of London and, as she said, a muff afficionado. In a 2018 article for the museum’s website, Behlen wrote about her own desire to “orchestrate a return of the muff.” Where do I go to enlist in that effort?

Full length standing portrait of two young women, 1920. Photo:JHU Sheridan Libraries/Gado (Getty Images)

Without a doubt, muffs’ number one and two competitors are gloves and mittens, both of which have won out in the court of public opinion. But that ruling didn’t always stand. In the 16th century, gloves, often made from leather, were “more decorative items” and they “wouldn’t actually warm your hands,” Behlen explained to me. Knitted gloves, which were popular before leather gloves, were referred to as “liturgical gloves” and used mainly for church. So when it came to keeping your fingers warm, muffs prevailed.

Popularized mostly by women, but worn by men as well, muffs were at the height of fashion in England and Scotland from the mid-17th century to the turn of the 18th century. The Museum of London has a print dating back to 1598 of a Venetian woman carrying a muff, which is the earliest appearance of a muff in its collection. “The idea for the muff arose with the abandonment of the very wide, long, often fur-lined sleeves worn in the early half of the 16th century,” Behlen said. They were typically made from rabbit or sable fur, though there are records of antique silk muffs. King Louis XIV of France, known for his dramatically opulent style, was said to have muffs made from tiger’s fur.

Europe’s upperclass took to the tubular hand warmers for a number of reasons. Notably, the fur muffs, often embellished with feathers and extravagant embroidery, were cost prohibitive to anyone outside of the upper echelon. Behlen also pointed out that muffs “demand a particular posture pose.” I thought back on my younger self, walking cautiously and upright, hands tucked neatly into my black muff like a real little lady. When I wore my muff, I was the fanciest girl in Hyattsville, Maryland.

An artist’s caricature of a woman with her oversized muff, from 1787. Illustration:Sepia Times (Getty Images)

But it was more than the poise. “You could argue that they denote that you don’t need to do anything with your hands apart from keeping them warm…that you are the type of person that doesn’t need to work,” Behlen said.

Towards the end of the 18th century, muffs ballooned in size, making the accessory ripe for satirizing those who wore them—mostly women at this point—as frivolous and silly. I would assume this caricaturization emboldened the use of the derogatory slang word to describe a woman’s private parts. The Oxford English Dictionary cites the slang usage of the word to mean “female pubic hair” and “muff-diving” to mean “cunnilingus.”(Don’t worry, I wasn’t going to write a full piece on Jezebel about muffs and not point out it also means “vagina.” I got you.)

I would also be remiss to not briefly mention the subversive history of muffs-as-accomplices to both rebellion and violence. In 1914, a suffragette named Mary Richardson hid a meat cleaver in her muff while touring the National Gallery in London. The Guardian reported that she then used it to slash seven cuts in Diego Velázquez’s painting “The Toilet of Venus,” in protest of fellow suffragette Emmeline Pankhurst’s arrest. Another literal trick up their sleeves that women occasionally employed was the “muff pistol,” also called “the ladies’ protector.” It was a small gun that could, as the name suggests, be concealed in a lady’s muff. Perhaps these came in handy when someone used the derogatory version of the word.

Diana Ross during the filming of “Mahogany” in 1975. Photo:Echoes/Redferns (Getty Images)

“Out of Hibernation: Fur Muffs” read a New York Times headline in 1968, promising a “revival” of the “chic” accessory. It was short-lived: Muffs all but disappeared from our coat closets after the 1960s. “The jumping dollies of the 1960s and the striding amazons of the 1970s,” Behlen wrote in her essay on the item’s history, were at odds with the “demureness” and luxury of the muff. Plus, the rise of the anti-fur movement made the accessory somewhat taboo. In the half a century since that Times piece ran, the rare mention of the winter accessory is likely to only pop up in the sports section to describe the hand warmers worn by athletes on the sidelines.

While mostly extinct, the accessory managed to live on in sartorial gestures to nostalgic luxury. “Fur muffs for little girls were fashionable as recently as the 1960s” reads the The Fairchild Dictionary of Fashion. My mother remembers her New York City grandmother sending matching fur muffs to her and her sisters in Birmingham, Alabama, in the late 1950s—a posh but impractical gift for their mild winters. The muff has also re-emerged a handful of times in pop culture through individuals who fancied the accessory. Princess Diana, Diana Ross, Aretha Franklin, and Carrie Bradshaw were all muff-aficionados. And they were all women who hovered high in the public imagination as fashionable trailblazers. Their inclination towards the accessory bolstered both their image and the muff’s as relics of a rare and forgotten elegance. But their enthusiasm never amounted to a full-blown resurgence of the trend.

Diana, Princess of Wales, and Prince Charles during a visit to Brixton, London, in March 1986. Photo:Jayne Fincher/Princess Diana Archive/ (Getty Images)

Like the cylindrical nature of the accessory itself, I think it is time to revisit this hand warmer of the past. From a very practical standpoint, the muff makes perfect sense for this day and age. How many times have you had to take your gloves or mittens off (risking losing one), or sneak your thumb outside of them to be able to use your phone or pull a card from your wallet? For me it’s constant! Not only does a muff conveniently grant your hands their freedom, it stores items as well, like a fanny pack but not attached to the hips.

In the 1880s, a conjoined muff-handbag—a muff with internal compartments for your personal items—was the accessory du jour, according to The Fairchild Dictionary of Fashion. Today, it seems like the optimal winter clutch solution. No need to store your gloves in a small purse if your gloves and your purse are one and the same. In 2015, Vogue called the handbag muff the “sartorial solution for the handbag shuffle” and showcased styles by Michael Kors, Tory Burch, ASOS, and Diane von Furstenburg.

Rooney Mara attends the Los Angeles premiere of “Women Talking” on November 17, 2022 in Beverly Hills, California. Photo:Michael Tullberg/FilmMagic (Getty Images)

Plenty of designers have debuted hand muffs on the runway in recent years. Fashionista spotted the trend in Fall 2020 and noted designs by Prabal Gurung and Claudia Li. Just a month ago, Rooney Mara slung a white silk muff over her hands on the Women Talking red carpet. But it hasn’t yet translated to street style. My hope is that this year’s rise in après-ski style outside the slopes might finally bring the muff the resurgence it deserves.

“My dream would be a collab with North Face,” Behlen said, describing her fantasy modern muff. “I would want a practical one, like a puffer jacket…with a little compartment…probably nylon and quite utilitarian.” A sporty muff would not only challenge their posh perception, it would be a nice bridge from our modern association of muffs with football players’ hand warmers.

My dream muff wouldn’t be as sporty or utilitarian as Behlen’s. I agree that a puffer jacket nylon fabric would be ideal, but I like the idea of it being embellished and embroidered to elevate it a bit. I, too, would love an internal compartment for my phone and debit cards. Like berets or statement scarves, I’d want my dream muff to be a somewhat playful statement. I can imagine a funky and bold brand like Urlazh putting out a kelly green or bright yellow chunky muff. Or, if I did want to go more sporty, a collab with Cotopaxi.

As I waited outside for an airport shuttle to bring me to my terminal in last week’s horrifically cold, sub-zero weather, and as I took my gloves on and off to text my worried mother about my cancelled flights and delayed trains, I certainly would have welcomed a chance to look more put together than I did in that moment. I certainly would have considered a muff.

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