Revisited Myth #17: The most stylish shoes were made of dogskin, hence the expression “puttin’ on the dog.”

 

 

Master book and shoemaker Al Saguto wearing shoes he copied from a circa-1606 pair made in England

Master book and shoemaker Al Saguto wearing shoes he copied from a circa-1606 pair made in England

Sticking with the shoe topic for another week, let’s bust this one about dog leather. Colonial Williamsburg’s master shoemaker, Al Saguto, hears this all too often, and each time he does, he explains that dog skin was not used to make shoes or boots in early America. (That isn’t to say that it never happens–I have read something about dogs slaughtered for their skins in present-day Thailand, but we’re dealing with American museums and American history myths here. The only American I can think of who was interested in dog skin is Disney’s Cruella de Vil, and my daughter informs me that she was really British.)

So what is the origin of the phrase “puttin’ on the dog?” Evidently the expression got started in the middle of the 19th century and it means “to show off.” Similar phrases were “putting on the ritz” or “cut a swell.” The earliest known use of the phrase was in 1871, in a book, Four Years at Yale, by L.H. Bagg, who says it was popular college slang meaning “make a flashy display or cut a swell.” Cassell’s Dictionary of Slang also dates the phrase to the mid-19th century U.S. and defines it as “to show off, to put on airs.”

 

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3 Responses to Revisited Myth #17: The most stylish shoes were made of dogskin, hence the expression “puttin’ on the dog.”

  1. So, the expression “my dogs are barking” for tired, achy feet has nothing to do with actual dogs? Darn.

  2. Liz says:

    While shoes may not have been made out of dog skin, it is mentioned repeatedly in glovers’ handbills from the 15th century until well into the 19th century. They were considered to be some of the finest gloves (aside from those made from fetal calves and pigs). This website makes mention of it, http://www.fashionintime.org/history-gloves-significance/ as do Victorian etiquette books, which recommended dog skin for gentlemen’s evening gloves. So even if dog shoe leather isn’t the true source of this phrase, there is at least some clue as to where the confusion and association arose.

    • Mary Miley says:

      Thanks for that excellent link. I read the paper by Yvette Mahe, PhD., and found the paragraph about dog skin gloves. She writes:
      “From the 1400s onwards, gloves made from the skins of lamb, sheep, doe, calf, hare, and chicken were in demand by the upper echelons of society. Some of the other skins that were used in the fabrication of gloves included tanned ox, elk, buck, goat, and dog-skin (Boucher, n.d., p. 224). Dog-skin appears to have had a certain cachet for some people. Antonio Perez, a onetime Spanish ambassador, sent to Lady Knolles a pair of gloves with a letter, saying, “These gloves, madam, are made of the skin of a dog, the animal most praised for its fidelity (Beck, 1969, 183-184). By the 1500s, fine leather fashion gloves as well as scented gloves were being produced in Spain, Italy, France, and England (Laver, 2002, p. 102; Sichel, 1977, p. 50-51).”

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