Sable might be today’s uncontested king of luxury furs, but historically, ermine was the status quo fur for royalty, and the most sought-after fur for court presentations and official portraiture. Ermine, as it turns out, became linked with Western European courts due to a symbolic legend stating that an ermine would “rather die than be defiled/soiled”, as translated from the Latin, “potius mori quam foedari”. Hence its representation of royal “moral purity.”
The white winter ermine is the favored fur, not its summer chestnut colored coat. White ermine with its trademark black tail-tip became so entrenched with aristocratic fashion from the medieval period onwards that it even found a place in heraldry. For example, the coat of arms of Bretagne (Brittany), in France, references ermine markings in its design.
Spectacular coronation portraits displayed in museums today show how effectively European monarchs used ermine and art as a projection of power and wealth from the onset of their reign. If a picture is worth a thousand words, coronation portraits bellowed clearly and loudly who was in charge symbolically and physically from that moment on.
One of the most extravagant examples of Royal/Imperial might and splendor was Catherine II of Russia, better known as Catherine the Great. The “accidental” ascendance of this relatively minor Prussian princess to the Russian Imperial throne through a well-orchestrated coup d’état (including the death of her husband) is full of drama and intrigue. What Catherine (b. Sophie Auguste Frederike von Anhalt-Zerbst) lacked in birthright, she easily overcame once at the helm of the Russian throne.
Her taste for grandeur and excess brought her to devise one of the most extravagant coronations in history. Her 1762 coronation train was a whopping extravaganza of ermine trimmed and gold embroidered velvet that required 6 chambermaids to help navigate throughout the ceremony.
Ermine maintains its rare and exclusive position in fashion today and its influence is reflected in portrait galleries and museums around the world as well as conceptually in current collections.