Canine Couture; or, The Well-Dressed Dog

The Council of Dogs, a slim little book, was first published in London in 1808. The text,
written in verse, has various breeds of dogs complaining that they have been overlooked by the
poets as being suitable subjects. Each breed then extols its virtues, sometimes slighting the
others. The twist comes near the end when a cur, creating unease among the other dogs, rose and
spoke about its deplorable condition:

…. On the sudden a howling went round
From each terrier and mastiff and pointer and hound;
For full in the midst of the council, a cur
(Whose presence no member had noticed before).

A dog tax had been introduced in Parliament in 1796 by John Dent. He became known as Dog Dent and is mentioned in the poem as “hard hearted” Dent. There had been other dog taxes prior to this, usually justified to defray the public costs caused by rabies or to reduce incidents of poaching. Dent’s argument for the tax was a new one: that

dog drawing

An engraving dated 1821 from the American edition of The Council of Dogs.

dogs were no longer merely utilitarian creatures (for hunting, herding, guarding or pulling carts), but were now considered valued members of a household, part of the family, and therefore luxury items.

The true reasons for the tax were, however, to help fund many years of England’s military endeavors and to ease the stress of a severe grain shortage plaguing England at the time. People were rioting because of sharp increases in the price of bread. The intended consequence of the tax was that those who could not pay would abandon their dogs. Not having dogs to feed would, therefore, help to alleviate the food crisis. And, indeed, this was the plight of the poor cur (and many thousands like him in reality) of the poem.

Dent did accurately observe and describe a growing change of how larger segments of people were feeling about their dogs. The Council of Dogs is illustrated with engravings of numerous dogs, but, even though they are talking, they are not yet dressed up. Dogs certainly had been dressed for performing at fairs and at early circuses, but the literature of the well-dressed canine began sparsely. Of the seven lithographic plates

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Dancing dogs, a hand-colored plate, from Doggiana by “Cynophilus.” London: 1817.

in a work entitled Doggiana, published in London in 1827 by someone using the name Cynophilus, the first shows three well-dressed dogs. The gentleman-dog, dressed in a military costume, is asking the two ladies, attired in dresses and bonnets, if they would like to dance. They are depicted in canine posture, standing on their hind legs with their front legs and paws out in front to help with balancing. You can imagine them bobbing around, similar to a scene that would have occurred at a fair or circus.

Victoria became queen in 1837, and her interest in dogs helped to make them even more fashionable. The first dog show in England took place in 1859. It included only pointers and setters, but over the next several years shows proliferated, adding additional breeds

As dog shows expanded, so did the literature of the well-dressed dog. In books that usually contained a moral lesson or instructions in comportment for children, the dogs of fashion are now in completely human social situations, fully dressed and in a human posture with front legs down at their sides, walking and dancing with ease. In some illustrations the paws have evolved into something akin to chubby, little fingers.

dog dinner

The Dogsʼ Dinner Party. London: circa 1870.

Dinners and balls were favorite subjects, and some publishers would re-issue the same text with entirely different illustrations.With titles such as The Dog’s Dinner Party and, stepping it up a notch, The Dogs’ Grand Dinner Party, invitations were issued, guests arrived and the party commenced. The event generally continued in an orderly manner, but for a pug, or bulldog, getting a bit out of place:

A rat pie being brought, soon was hushed every voice,
And each one declared that the dinner was choice;
While the Bull-dog, whose manner was certainly rough,
And we’ll say unbecoming, ate more than enough.

In Dash’s Holiday, Dash’s mistress goes out-of-town, and he decides to head for the country as well. On his way out of London, he pities other dogs not as well dressed as he. In the country he attends the hunt dinner and next day, as a novice, chases the fox. And so it goes.

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Two illustrations from Dashʼs Holiday. London: circa 1880.

This article, in a slightly different version, first appeared in Middleburg Life, in the column “Then & There.” © Richard Hooper

Photographs by Richard Hooper