European history came alive for me during my first visit to the National Portrait Gallery in London. The docent, who was both knowledgeable and entertaining, described political and art history, but also was generous with juicy tidbits about palace intrigue, illicit romance, and fashion trends.
Naturally, I became fixated on furs…… every coronation robe, cape and crown seemed to be lined or embellished with white fur having black markings.
I had to ask. “What’s with the ermine?”
“Ah, imperial ermine!” Delighted with the question, the guide explained that royalty, pretentious nobility and high-ranking clerics in Europe, Russia and even the Byzantine Empire used ermine to proclaim their status, wealth and power. She went on to explain that no mammal actually had white fur with black streaks---the pure white luxury fur is that of ermine and the black streaks are the tails of these creatures.
I knew that…we have ermine here. They’re weasels. In summer, their backs, legs and heads are a rich chocolate brown but their tails have black tips. In winter, they molt to a pure white, but their tail tips are still black.
Presumably, the black tail tips enable these little carnivores to avoid capture from hawks and owls, which aim their talons at the fast moving black tail tips, and consequently, completely miss the snow-white bodies.
I understand that Queen Elizabeth now insists on faux fur for her personal wardrobe, but her coronation robes were lavishly lined with Canadian ermine and her Imperial State Crown (which now is too heavy for her to wear,) is trimmed with a band of the royal fur.
In all likelihood, another Coronation will occur any time now. I have to wonder if the new monarch will be wearing imperial ermine.