Fashion Detective

UNKNOWN, Australia
Cape (c. 1890) (detail)

Fashion Detective, now showing at NGV Australia, takes a selection of miscellaneous garments and accessories as the starting point for a series of investigations. Here, we investigate the history of a special fur cape in the NGV Collection.

This fur cape entered the NGV Collection in 1985 and was catalogued as being manufactured from wombat fur originating from Tasmania in the 1890s. However, the description of wombat fur did not match the fur on the cape and it was necessary as part of the conservation process to provide a positive identification of the fur.  Experts at the Royal Melbourne Zoo provided a visual examination and in-lab microscopy was also carried out by textile conservators.

Analysis showed that the fur used to make this unusual cape was in fact platypus fur (Ornithorhynchus anatinus).  The fur from a platypus is usually darker brown on the head and back of the platypus, and is a lighter shade of grey and gold on the stomach. Though somewhat grisly to consider, the large button on the cape is likely to be made from fur from the stomach of the platypus.  Platypus fur is incredibly dense and is made from two distinct types of fur: woolly underfur which keeps the animal warm and thicker guard fur which keeps the animal dry and gives the cape its distinctive sheen. The diameter of fine fur from the platypus has been measured at 15-25µm and the guard hairs at up to 400 µm.

The 1890s was a time rife for animals being hunted to extinction for their fur or feathers and platypus numbers reportedly became severely depleted during the 19th century due to hunting for their fur.  At the height of the fur trade platypus rugs were made with might typically contain 50 to 60 pelts. Luckily for the survival of the platypus, even though its fur had many favourable qualities (such as warmth and waterproofing) its skin was very thick and it was difficult to style into fashionable garments. It is thought that one of the most important and fortunate factors protecting the platypus, was that its fur was not highly valued as an export item.  The maker of this cape was likely to be an amateur who was however perhaps quite talented, in creating a stylish garment from such thick fur.