Lost History of the Canine Race

By Mary Elizabeth Thurston
Excerpt from Chapter 9, “Eye of the Beholder”
Book: The Lost History of the Canine Race

Hardcover publisher Andrews and McMeel, 1996 Trade paperback publisher Avon Books, 1997
Published here with the permission of the author.

Renaissance canines fortunate enough to live with doting aristocrats often enjoyed the same opulent fashions as their masters. Tended to by professional groomers called “demoiselles,” curly-coated retrieving breeds (thought to be progenitors of the modern Poodle) invited creative embellishment in the hands of itinerant canine stylists.

The “Continental” clip, a partial, stylized shearing of the dog, was an instant hit with the well-to-do, as they transformed their pets into pseudolions–personal emblems of power and prestige. The Continental clip experienced a second surge in popularity nineteenth-century Paris, where on any Sunday, citizens would be seen leading their dogs to the banks of the Seine under the Pont-des-Arts, to awaiting demoiselles. For a fee, the animals would be lathered, immersed in sulfur water (to kill fleas), then sent fetching a stick tossed into the river, after which they would be dried then clipped to their owner’s desire.

It was during this time, too, that canine coiffures were increasingly patterned after women’s hairstyles. The “tonte en macarons,” a cascade of coiled hair first worn by Princess Eugénie, wife of Emperor Napoleon III, became the rage in the 1890s, inspiring the “caniche cordé,” or corded poodle. These dogs still sported Continental clips, but now the fur on the shoulders and head was encouraged to mat until it formed ropelike coils that trailed the ground.

Already rattled by the growing presence of women in the world of dog breeding, some old-school sportsmen grumbled that traditional working breeds were compromised by fashionable grooming styles. “Some owners tie the hair atop of the Poodle’s head with a ribbon and send him out like a little girl going to a party,” fretted Ernest Baynes at the turn of the century.

The Roaring Twenties ushered in a new fashion era for women and dogs alike, who now had their tresses shorned in perky “page boy” bobs, reflecting a new spirit of rebellion against rigid Victorian moral strictures. Many newly liberated women–single, wealthy and in no hurry to settle down–abandoned their dainty lapdogs for more “manly” breeds, such as Newfoundlands and German Shepherds, then impertinently had the animals shorn in the same “feminine” fashion as the Poodles.

Rebellious canine fashions resurfaced again in the 1960s as hair and clothing styles popularized by student protesters filtered into mainstream society. Poodles seen strolling in New York’s Central Park still sported Continental clips, but now they were canine equivalents of “flower children,” appropriately attired with real or plastic daisies, and in some instances, dyed in psychedelic swirls of green, pink and yellow. And for the first time in history it became fashionable to own mongrels, the more mixed the animals’ “racial” makeup the better. Reflecting their counterculture popularity, the coats of these dogs were left long and natural.

More recently, fancifully coifed canines have been the subject of popular parody, as in a Lynda Barry cartoon depicting a defiant, snarling Poodle with spiked hair, reading, “He’s small, he’s black, he’s MAD AS HELL–he’s a POODLE WITH A MOHAWK. You’ll never call him Fifi again!” In the same vein, unkempt Poodles have become metaphors for anarchy, as reflected in the popular movie Batman Returns (1992), in which a bizarrely matted Miniature Poodle is employed by the evil Penguin to carry bombs around Gotham City.

On the advent of the 21st century, canine fashion has overcome its image as a snobbish excess to be reborn as a legitimate means of expressing concern and affection for companion animals. Now a well-groomed and adorned dog seems not so much to symbolize the domination of civilization over nature, but the canine’s mastery of the human heart.