On the rare occasions that Veletta Bell wraps herself in the full-length, dark brown, female mink fur coat gifted to her by her oldest aunt, she can’t help but stand a little taller and walk with her head aimed a little toward the sky.
Not only is the coat an exquisite luxury accessory that draws attention, but it also allows Bell to reflect on her aunt, Ollie Wright, who was known as the hardworking trailblazer in her family. And as she thinks about her beloved relative, Bell consciously takes on some of the trendsetter’s former sass and resolute persona.
“Because it’s her coat, I wear it a little different than how I wear my own coat,” Bell said. “She was always a confident, head-high woman. The coat was so in line with her personality, and I want to wear it the way she did. Because of who my aunt is and the esteem I hold for her, to have something of hers is extremely important to me.”
Bell is continuing a rarely recognized ritual in the African-American community, one in which older black women pass their expensive coats on to younger women in their families and friendship circles as a gentle way of affirming the younger woman’s elegance and grace.
It is a tradition that endures today, even as public mores about fur coats change.
In times past, fur coats were widely viewed as the ultimate luxury fashion accessory, as generations of striving Americans, no matter their ethnicity, sought to project their achievements. But for a generation of African-Americans who migrated to Chicago from the South, fleeing racial violence and looking for economic stability, the coats took on an even greater status and cachet.
Being able to purchase a fur coat — and have places to wear it — meant that a family had arrived and had accomplished what their ancestors could only dream about, said Charles Bethea, the director of curatorial affairs at the Chicago History Museum.
Many black women in the early 1920s through 1970s could only work as domestics, and those who did work as educators or nurses or hairdressers were still earning lower wages than their white counterparts. It was an era of segregation, Jim Crow laws, redlining and housing discrimination. So saving enough to purchase a coat priced from $5,000 to $20,000 was a way of showing that that they could overcome the barriers of inequality, Bethea said. It was also a way of presenting an aspirational image while challenging the stereotypes and perceptions of black life, he said.
“For so many African-Americans here, you were seen as a woman of class and stature when you owned a fur coat,” Bethea said. “It was an outward expression of making it. When a black woman was out in public, everyone saw her in that garment. And for women with a sense of fashion, style and elegance, owning a fur was big.”
In a way, passing down a fur coat is a modest gesture to prophesize a life of opulence and grandeur for a younger woman, said Tanisha C. Ford, an associate professor of Africana Studies and History at the University of Delaware and author of “Dressed in Dreams,” a book that explores the politics of black fashion.
“At a time when segregation was still the law of the land, and de facto the law onward, for a black woman to walk outside her house in something that was as luxurious and glamorous and that was normally designated for a white woman — it was a big deal,” Ford said. “This country was legally telling black women they were inferior.
Veletta Bell at home with her fur coat that her aunt Ollie Wright gave her. (Abel Uribe / Chicago Tribune)
“In passing on the fur coats, the stoles, the muffs, it’s a way to pass on a family tradition of ‘styling out’ and it’s a way to give something that has your ancestor’s DNA mixed up in it,” she said. “When finally, that family member deems you old enough and responsible enough and able to carry on the family vision for the future through this heirloom, it’s a huge rite of passage. It goes way beyond the tangible value of the coat itself. There’s something emotionally intrinsic that is attached to that garment.”
In some circles, fur has lost its appeal because of the way the animals are slaughtered and mistreated.
But for many African-American women who have been gifted the coats, the garments remain a way of remembering their loved ones, Ford said.
“Black people are spiritual people. Many of us believe that a spirit of a person lives on in the clothes even after that person passes away,” Ford said. “The garment gives us a conduit to that loved one who has joined the ancestors. That’s why you see so many people fighting over these things. It’s not the monetary value, it’s that they want that direct access to that loved one.”
The tradition of black families passing on fur coats isn’t exclusive to Chicago.
Ajanae Dawkins grew up in a suburb of Detroit, and four generations of women in her family are members of the historic Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority. All her life, she saw her relatives wearing fur coats to galas, fundraisers, church and community celebrations.
Two years ago, as she was getting dressed to go to a sorority event, Dawkins’ grandmother placed a white, waist-length, long-sleeve vintage mink coat across her shoulders for her to wear and keep. Then she sat the younger woman down and talked with her about their family’s legacy and all she envisioned for the then-college student’s life.
“It was definitely a moment,” said Dawkins, 23, who is a middle school English teacher, poet and performance artist in West Bloomfield, Mich. “My grandmother has given me the nicest thing I own. It means so much to me because I’m reminded of how much of my grandmother’s child I am. I know my grandmother is proud of me and she’s excited that she can give me something that comes from the work she’s done.”
My grandmother has given me the nicest thing I own. It means so much to me because I’m reminded of how much of my grandmother’s child I am.
— Ajanae Dawkins, 23
Not all black women were gifted the items while their loved ones were still alive.
For much of her life, Meredith Fisher’s mother expressed that she wanted a fur coat. She bought one in the late 1980s, after she retired. When Gwendolyn Clincy died suddenly four years ago, Fisher and her sister found the fur coat while cleaning out their mother’s belongings.
Fisher said she tried on her mother’s full-length, rich brown, mink coat. It fit perfectly, and she knew it was for her.
“The coat held so many memories,” Fisher said. “She had worked so many years so basically she had earned it. It wasn’t given to her, it was something she worked to have and enjoyed.”
Now that she owns it, Fisher wears the coat only on special occasions and when it’s frigid, which means it may get worn only a few times a year.
“It makes me feel closer to her when I wear it,” said Fisher, 47, of Forest Park. “We were very close, and in her last years, she had Alzheimer’s. Her coat helps me to remember her happier times.”
In Veletta Bell’s South Side family, it was her mother’s older sister who became a standout, not only because of her flashy style, but also because of her no-nonsense attitude and determination to succeed.
Now 89, Ollie Wright was a single, independent working woman. She was among a wave of the first black women hired to work at AT&T, and she lived in a high-rise in Bronzeville and managed to put herself through college even while helping to raise her younger siblings. When she was ready, in the late 1960s, she bought her coat for herself — a way of declaring her independence.
She wore the coat to church on Sundays and whenever she attended a fancy concert, play or formal party.
About seven years ago, while at her aunt’s house on Christmas Day as they were surrounded by family, Wright told Bell to look in the closet and get her fur.
“I assumed she wanted me to take it and have it cleaned and stored,” Bell said. Instead, Wright instructed her to try it on.
“She said, ‘It looks nice on you. It’s now too heavy for me.’ ”
And then Wright told Bell she wanted her to have it.
“I felt good about it,” said Wright, who, because of health complications, could only speak briefly about the memory.
At first Bell’s mother, Wright’s younger sister, tried to protest. “My mother was like, ‘I’m your sister! You’re not going to ask me if I want it?’ ”
But Wright’s mind was made up.
“I did give it to her,” she said of her niece. “I felt really good.”
“It’s extremely classic,” Bell, 55, said of the coat. “Every time I wear it, someone tells me it’s beautiful. This coat was a financial sacrifice for her and she took care of it meticulously.”
For Bell, the significance of the moment wasn’t lost on her. The gesture let her know her aunt looked at her and saw some of her own fiery spirit.
“A lot of women, at that time, wouldn’t have had this coat because they would have waited for their husbands to give it to them,” said Bell, who, like her aunt, doesn’t have any children and is accomplished in her own right as the director of the Project Management Office at the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business. “It spoke to the idea that she didn’t need a man to have the finer things. She was diligent and determined to reach her goals. Getting a fur coat was just one of them.”
Although she plans to keep her aunt’s fur for many years, Bell said she already knows whom she plans to give it to, when the time is right.
“I want to give it to my cousin’s daughter,” she said. “She’s very driven and responsible, and she’s so determined. Those are the attributes that my aunt admires. That’s who my aunt would want to have it.”