Cavalier King Charles Spaniels have so much in common with historical costuming: the breed is a reproduction of an extinct breed based solely on portraits and accounts written by people long dead.
Both fashion and dogs have geneaologies, as they are born from lineages and mutations. No dog breed, or fashion can exist without a history and origin of it’s components. Dog breeding, like fashion and clothes, has it’s roots in the quest for human delight, pleasure, and comfort. Genetic analysis of dog breeds has determined that humanity originally bred dogs with the purpose of companionship in mind, which is not really what one would have guessed. One can imagine that the life span of working dogs in the early stages of mankind was pretty short, so numbers – not quality – would have been most important. If they did breed their working dogs, geneticists have been unable to find any modern evidence of the fact. But there is evidence that when mankind started breeding dogs it was temperament, not strength or work-capacity. And a Cavalier King Charles is a perfect example of a dog meant solely for companionship.
Yet, my purpose here is not to discuss the merits of this docile, non-aggressive, loving breed, or it’s eager quest to find a warm friendly lap on which to relax. What does interest me about the breed, and what it shares with historical costuming, are the origins of it’s modern form.
The original King Charles Spaniel was an early modern creation. Brought to England from the continent, they were made intensely popular by King Charles I before he lost his head in the Civil War. In the restoration era, they were still inhabiting the neoclassical halls of the English aristocracy but their population substantially decreased over the next century. In a sense, they did disappear eventually, as by the Victorian era the King Charles Spaniel looked very different from what we have in portraits. In 1845, William Youatt commented “The King Charles’s breed of the present day is materially altered for the worse. The muzzle is almost as short, and the forehead as ugly and prominent as the veriest bull-dog. The eye is increased to double its former size, and has an expression of stupidity with which the character of the dog too accurately corresponds.”
In the early 20th century, an eccentric millionaire offered a sizable sum to any dog breeder who could reproduce the King Charles Spaniel from the 17th Century. Dog breeder associations had a good laugh at this amateur, rather pointless (to their minds) effort to recreate a dead aesthetic. Sadly, the gentleman who started the project died before it reached its completion, a completion it almost didn’t reach. During World War II, the quest for the 17th century spaniel of the decapitated king was nearly lost yet again. The leading kennel which was making the effort found their 60-dog kennel cut back to 5 or 6 dogs as a result of war rationing, general lack of resources, and waning support for an whimsical project to breed a toy dog belonging to an absolutist king. It is from this small surviving population that all modern Cavalier King Charles Spaniels descend.
Historical Costuming and the Cavalier King Charles Spaniels have a great deal in common, therefore. They were both reproduced from beautiful period portraits, drawings, and written accounts of people long dead. They were both endeavors born from eccentricity and nostalgia. And both are very friendly, very non-threatening, beautiful to look at, and they keep you nice and warm.
Why am I writing about these dogs? Because I just got one. She is a beautiful, Blenheim blue blood and such a lover!