Kit's post on big vs. small dog glamour got me thinking about all those celebrity Chihuahuas and Shih Tzus. I've always felt that there's a certain kind of grace to big, sleek dogs, like this Great Dane pictured with Coco Chanel at La Pausa, the late designer’s estate on the Med. A large, well-groomed dog conveys power and elegance. Small dogs, on the other hand, have always seemed to me more impish and cute than sophisticated. So how is it that all these lapdogs became associated with the rich and fabulous?
I speculated that this would be a recent affiliation, sparked by Us Weekly spreads featuring toy pooches cradled under the bejeweled arms of blond starlets, or peeking out of the designer bag-of-the-moment. If not that recent, then I thought possibly the glamour of the small dog was imported sometime in the early 20th century through the American infatuation with all things Paris (a city that loves its dogs so much it built them their own swanky cemetery). But as it turns out, the relationship is much older and deeper than I could have imagined.
The poshness of lapdogs dates back at least 2000 years to ancient China, where the Pekingese breed was beloved by members of the Chinese Imperial court. In fact, it was so exclusive that anyone else was forbidden from owning one. The Peke was bred small to fit inside the sleeves of a man’s robe (therein to do what is anyone’s guess) and it has retained its status remarkably well; the breed was still popular in the time of Empress Dowager Cixi (1835-1908), who kept packs of them in her palace and even wrote them a poem.
Other little dogs have had similarly privileged standing over the years. The ancestor to Chihuahuas like Paris Hilton’s Tinkerbell was associated with royal Aztecs, who believed it had mystical powers. The Papillon was among several breeds of toy dogs coveted by European royals of the 15th century, and features prominently in paintings of the French royal court at the time. The Bichon Frise, another breed adored by French royalty, found this association to be unfortunate during the French revolution; their owners deposed, these royal dogs found themselves on the streets, saved only by a sharp wit that allowed them to learn tricks and join the circus. And before its association with Charlotte York on Sex and the City, the Cavalier King Charles Spaniel long had pride of place in the British royal family. King Charles II, the dog’s namesake, was so enamored of the breed that he enacted a law that the spaniel could not be refused entry anywhere in the United Kingdom, an edict that remains on the books even today.
Lapdogs originated as status symbols in the same way that pale skin or healthy plumpness did — they signified that you were of a class that did not need to work for a living, that your existence was defined by leisure and plenty. While other species of dogs were kept for digging, hunting, or herding, lapdogs’ only “work” involved looking good and being cute. This difference is no longer relevant, now that few dogs of any size still work for their kibble, but the aura persists. It has also been suggested that lapdogs were kept through the years for warmth, a plausible enticement even for today’s scantily clad, waifish celebs, and to attract fleas from their owners, a motive we can only hope that high-class hygiene has made obsolete.
[Images: Coco Chanel with dog from Baudot, Francois. A Century of Fashion London: Thames & Hudson, 1999. Chinese Scroll of Women Playing with Pekingese, Tang Dynasty, 8th C. Painting of Louis XIV and Family with Papillon dog, attributed to Nicolas de Lagrilliere, 1710-1715.]