The Elegant Beast

About thirty years ago, I bought two copies of a wonderful picture book called The Elegant Beast, one for me and one for my mother. Written and illustrated by Leonard Lubin and published in 1981 by The Viking Press, the book is subtitled “Or Conversations on Costume, Being a Treatise with Illustrations Showing How Clothes The Elegant BeastCan Bring Out the Animal in All of Us.” The twenty beautifully drawn and colored illustrations depict a wide range of animals dressed in costumes ranging from the Middle Ages to the Belle Epoque.

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Some years late I chopped up my copy of the book in order to frame the pictures. I gave several to my writing friends as Christmas gifts that year and hung the rest around my house, convinced that somewhere I had the copy I’d given my mom (a lover of fashion illustration, and pretty darn good at it herself), who had passed away by then.

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But I couldn’t find that second copy, not in the books she brought with her when she moved in with me, not in any of the bookshelves around the house. For all I know, it’s here somewhere still—my house overflows with books, and I’ll bet at least ten percent of them are so lost on the shelves that I will only find them by accident.

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I think I bought those original copies on a remainder table somewhere: the original price was all of $10.95, but I’m sure I didn’t pay that much for them. When the Internet made it easy to find out-of-print books I looked for it, and found the price had skyrocketed. Eventually I ordered a copy at a reasonable price, and received a battered book that once belonged to a branch of the Dallas Public Library, shelving stickers and card pocket still firmly glued in place. All the pictures were there, but it was something of a disappointment.

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So when I ordered a book from Alibris last Tuesday, I cruised around the site until I found a copy of The Elegant Beast, described as “good,” for about five dollars (the price of the book on Alibris currently ranges up to $96, and I saw one on Amazon for $115). What the heck, I thought, and clicked it into my shopping cart. Both books were on my doorstep Friday afternoon, and both were in perfect condition.

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So here are a few of the Elegant Beasts (I have committed no sin against bookbindings—the spine of the ex-library edition was broken when I got it, and that’s what I used for the photographs). The facing page to each illustration gives a paragraph or two of period history and a detailed description of the pictured clothing.

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The first models, brown and black rats, are dressed in the Gothic fashions of 1430 to 1460.

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Elegant Beast Gothic

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Here a chihuahua and a bull dog represent the Tudor period.

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Elegant Beast Tudor

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Along the way we meet a variety of dogs, cats, and birds, an Elizabethan Galapagos tortoise, goats, hares, and lions, baboons, a llama and a camel (the French Empire period) and a pair of jaunty zebras (French Directoire).

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Here we see a gentleman warthog and a lady pig from the late Victorian era.

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Elegant Beast Victorian

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And, finally, from the Belle Epoque (1910-1915), a harbor seal and an elephant seal represent the height of fashion.

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Elegant Beast Belle Epoque

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Lubin ended his history there, feeling that the First World War changed many aspects of life, not the least of them attitudes toward fashion, and perhaps the wealth and leisure to pursue such an interest disappeared as well.

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The Elegant Beast is an utterly charming book. If you’re lucky enough to run across a copy in your favorite used bookstore, grab it.

2 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Leslie
    Aug 13, 2016 @ 19:58:28

    What a fun book! And a great backstory for how it wound up on your blog. Thanks for sharing this, Kay.

    Like

    Reply

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