Brain Pickings

The Psychology of Pets as an Extension of Human Fashion: Virginia Woolf’s Nephew on Why Dogs Came to Outshine Cats

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“Dogs are the fashion because we can fashion them to our will.”

Given my soft spot for dogs (and the occasional cat), I was intrigued by a passage from On Human Finery (public library) — that fascinating 1947 meditation on sartorial morality and conspicuous consumption by Quentin Bell, Virginia Woolf’s nephew and teenage collaborator — which contrasts the cultural roles of cats and dogs in human society. Bell, an acclaimed author and historian in his own right, and his aunt’s official biographer, presents an anthropological theory of why the dog has emerged as humanity’s pet of choice, “man’s best friend,” over all other domestic animals.

His assertion, served through the lens of the psychology of fashion, appears at first an offputting affront to animal consciousness, reducing our canine companions and their genius to mere objects. But Bell’s arguments actually reveal more about the complexity of being human, driven by an endless osmosis of generosity and solipsism, and speaks to our immutable impulse to will life’s chaos into order. He writes:

The comparison between the cat and the dog is highly instructive. The cat is the most polite of the domestic animals. Its life in the home is almost a kind of symbiosis. It is very clean in its habits; on the whole it pays its way and is frequently of more service than disservice to its owner.

The dog on the other hand has not shown the cat’s adaptation to the life of cities; he belongs to the kennel, but is seldom found there when used as an ornament.

A cat of questionable politeness, from the wonderful 'Lost Cat' by Caroline Paul and Wendy MacNaughton. Click image for more.

Bell quotes the legendary economist and sociologist Thomas Veblen, who asserted that the dog makes up for his unclean habits by having “a service attitude towards his master, and a readiness to inflict damage and discomfort on all else.” In fact, Bell argues, this attitude of servility is the very reason for the dog’s long history as fashionable decoration:

The enormous esteem in which dogs are held and their almost universal employment as ornaments is no doubt in a large measure due to this servile attitude; also perhaps they are psychological substitutes for children (a large section of the pet-loving public … consists of women in the higher income groups).

1967 New Yorker cover by Peter Arno from 'The Big New Yorker Book of Dogs.' Click image for more.

Bell, however, argues there are three main reasons that render dogs “modish above all other creatures”:

  1. Their connection with the futile pursuits of the chase
  2. Their sequacity which makes them in effect a part of the costume
  3. The extreme malleability of the species when subjected to selective breeding

A dog who has clearly not read Bell nor identifies as a mere ‘object’

Bell deems the third factor dogs’ greatest merit, indulging our urge to project ourselves onto the world and bend it to our will — an urge which lends itself to especial extremes when it comes to pets:

Dogs are the fashion because we can fashion them to our will. Dogs, much more than cats, can be made objects of conspicuous leisure; they can be rendered completely incapable of fending for themselves and made demonstrable objects of continual expense and care (whoever saw a cat wearing a little coat in the cold weather?) The highly-bred dog can have its whole frame twisted and distorted into shapes of the most astonishing kind. An uninstructed observer would suppose that the owners and vendors of these crippled and unhealthy animals must of necessity be exceedingly cruel. Such accusations would, however, be unjust; the torturers are genuinely devoted to their victims.

2010 New Yorker cover by Ana Juan from 'The Big New Yorker Book of Dogs.' Click image for more.

Bell concludes the chapter by circling back to the original lens through which he examines our attitudes towards pets — that of fashion’s morality, which he examined earlier in the book — and argues it is motive that exempts the extreme grooming of pets from the sort of moral condemnation with which we view animal testing and other experimental lab atrocities:

Fashion … has a morality of its own; and the cruelty involved in the deformation of unoffending animals, like that involved in blood sports, is redeemed by the economic futility of the motive; that involved in scientific experiments is felt to be odious because of its unpardonable utility.

Though long out-of-print, On Human Finery remains a treasure trove of timeless insight and is very much worth the used-book hunt or trip to the library. For a different cultural lens on the mesmerism of pets, pair this treat with The Big New Yorker Book of Dogs (one of the the best art books of 2012) and T. S. Eliot’s classic vintage verses about cats, illustrated by Edward Gorey.

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