The other day, I spotted a pair of humans walking a tiny dog in my neighborhood. The pup was cute, sure, with that little pep in her step, but it wasn’t her bounce that caught my eye. No, no. What caught my eye was the fact that she was wearing a dress.
This wasn’t what we might call a “practical” piece of outerwear, mind you. The thin fabric didn’t provide much warmth, and it certainly wasn’t doing her figure any favors. (Hey, we’ve all been there.) The garment was even bejeweled and complete with a frilly skirt. The pup didn’t seem to be bothered, though, and she continued on her way. (Note: the dog pictured below is not the dog described here, though they’re both equally fabulous.)
You may have wondered, as I did with four of my own “naked” dogs by my side, what the purpose was behind this wardrobe choice. I know we never dressed my childhood dogs to the nines like this, so what’s the deal?
These pensive curiosities got us thinking. When did dressing dogs become a thing?
It’s difficult to shock me when it comes to what dog owners will do for (or to) their best friends, but I was certainly surprised after a bit of informal research. Strangely enough, there is a blatant lack of expert information. However, several curious doggie bloggers have delved into the phenomenon themselves. One of these is Montecristo of Montecristo Travels. He’s a dog, but he writes surprisingly well considering his lack of opposable thumbs.
Montecristo suspects dogs have been our companions for at least 12,000 years. A CNN article claims that it began as many as 32,000 years ago, though this estimate isn’t without controversy. So let’s just say we’ve been hanging with our four-legged friends for a long, long time.
Its also stands, then, that we have been “decorating” dogs for nearly as long. I don’t mean sweaters, hoodies, or tutus — no, none of that. Collars were, of course, dogs’ first fashion statement. Rewind to the time of the ancient Egyptians, who were notorious cat-lovers but who also revered dogs as hunters, guardians, and protectors of the home.
Collars emerged as tools for training and restraint as well as status symbols at the height of civilization. But they were also beautiful works of art. The leather collar below was supposedly one of two discovered by the French explorer Victor Loret, and depicts rather detailed hunting scenes as well as the dog’s name, Tantanuit.
The collar-and-leash combo quickly became the norm. They were often made from leather and various metals, embossed with beautiful designs and sometimes decorated with gold and brightly colored stones. If you are unfamiliar with the story of the guard dog from Pompeii, who perished in the aftermath of Mount Vesuvius’ eruption, it provides unique insight itself.
Once chained on his property as protector of the home, the dog’s cavity in the earth from 79 A.D. was discovered by archeologists, who created a plaster mold of the body. Once cast, infrared light revealed the dog had been wearing a bronze-studded collar inscribed with a story of how the dog saved his human from a wolf attack.
New York City-based artist Allan Mccollum cast glass-fiber replicas of the dog, which were famously reproduced in 1991.
Circa 46–44 B.C., Julius Caesar even had to reprimand citizens for paying more attention to their dogs than their children!
According to Cynthia Branigan’s 2004 book The Reign of the Greyhound, Louis XI of France boasted a pack of a few dozen Greyhounds. He adorned his favorite pup, Cher Ami (“Dear Friend) in a solid gold collar covered in rubies. Other royal canines were given collars encrusted with diamonds, embossed with epitaphs and stories, or hung with small bells.
When the act of dressing dogs in clothes gained popularity, there were no “dog sweaters” or “dog jackets” or dog-anything. Dogs owned by royalty were sometimes clothed in miniaturized human outfits, like the tutu-clad dog on the neighborhood street. Montecristo writes:
In 1833 in Britain, Princess Victoria wrote of her spaniel that she “dressed dear sweet little Dash in a scarlet jacket and blue trousers.” In fact, the taste for animal fashion in the 19th Century developed into a profitable manufacturing industry.
He goes on to note specific ordinary clothing items worn by dogs in the 19th century, as stated in Paul Mégnin’s Nos Chiens, “Our Dogs.” These included “costumes” for afternoon visits, evening wear, travel, and the beach. THE BEACH.
From Nos Chiens:
Our chic dogs have a special bathing outfit—in blue cambric with a sailor’s collar hemmed in white with embroidered anchors in each of the corners; and on one of the sides, embroidered in gold, the name of the beach—Cabourg or Trouville.
Meanwhile, I’m lucky if my bikini top and bottom match.
Later experts, like Alfred Barbou in his book, Le Chien: Son histoire, ses exploits, ses aventures, “The Dog: Its history, its achievements, its adventures,” explain that embroidered coats, traveling cloaks, silk jackets, and tea gowns were the norm. Barbou and other authors of the time also agreed that winter wear was necessary and expected.
Here we are in the late 19th century with dogs who wouldn’t be caught dead without their traveling cloaks, complete with small pocket for their train ticket. Not a problem then, but as people became more mindful of animal welfare, criticisms arose naming excessive outfits potentially harmful to pets.
Dogs use their bodies to communicate, and clothing that inhibits this could be impractical for them as well as uncomfortable. The Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (RSPCA) stated just this past Christmas:
If we start to cover [those communicative behaviors] up it makes it very difficult for [dogs] to communicate with us and other dogs. The RSPCA’s general position is not to put costumes on dogs. The animal welfare charity has warned that in some cases there may be grounds to prosecute if pets are forced to wear clothing that could be deemed harmful.
The organization did, however, approve the use of clothing in older dogs and younger dogs who are ill, or who have shorter coats which are not suited for cold temperatures.
You will find no shortage of doggie boutiques online selling anything from underwear and pajamas to swimwear and “birthday couture.” Whether your idea of canine fashion is that fancy sequined number in the window or a sturdy leather collar, you’re one in a long line of dog-dressing humans.
Just remember to clothe responsibly and don’t embarrass your dog in front of his friends. That’s not cool.