by Judith Newman

Black? Cream? Erin Roberts stared at the clothing strewn across her bed. Years of experience were being brought to bear on this decision.

“So I’ve got the cream Saluki and the black schipperke, and I have to be the backdrop,” she said. “I always like wearing black because it makes you look thinner, but then with the black dog, I can disappear. You can’t outshine your dog, but you must complement.”

Ultimately Roberts, a dog handler from Oklahoma City, went with a black jacket with a cream skirt. Problem solved.

The Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show, held this year on Feb. 16 and 17 at Madison Square Garden, is often thought of as a beauty pageant for dogs. But it is no less a pageant for their people, and always has been. (A report from The New York Times in 1877 read: “The first annual New-York bench show of dogs is a great success. The class of guests was of the best. Everybody was fashionably dressed and wore an air of good breeding.”)

Clothes can’t make a champion, but they can make sure your dog catches the judge’s eye. The judge of the non-sporting group this year took one look at Yang Ling, the breeder and handler of a chow chow, Kun Lung, and exclaimed loud enough for the audience to hear, “I love your dress,” a black silk sheath embroidered with a fenghuang, the Chinese equivalent of a phoenix and a symbol of virtue and grace.

Alas, Yang Ling and Kun Lung returned to Beijing ribbonless, “but the dress was a deliberate attempt to emphasize the dog’s heritage and his innate dramatic quality,” said Pamela Powers January, an animal portraitist in Southern Pines, North Carolina, and a former art director at the American Kennel Club. January said there is a history of handlers who know how to put on a show. One of her favorites was Lina Basquette, a breeder of Great Danes who showed in the 1970s and ‘80s. Her typical look for the ring: hair coiled on head, heavily penciled
eyebrows, 2-inch false eyelashes, a chest covered in pins and rings on every finger.

“She was hugely dramatic with her makeup and hair and jewelry, and needed to make a big statement because she was showing a huge breed,” January said. (She was larger than life outside the show ring, too: A former Ziegfield Follies star, she was married nine times, first to Sam Warner, a founder of Warner Bros.)

These days, many of the owners, handlers and breeders come to New York from around the country, some from areas where the opportunities to swan around in sparkly suits may be limited. So when they get to New York and the cameras, they want to shine.

And shine they do, although the celebrity stylist Carson Kressley, ever
diplomatic, declared Westminster fashion “mesmerizing.” “You know they have clinics showing people how to show their dogs?” he said. “I would happily give them a style clinic.”

Adrienne Owen, a handler from Alta Loma, California, who has a blog called Dressed 4 Best in Show, said, “People make fun of dog fashion because it’s bad.”

Owen wore a royal blue suit with a black lace overlay to show her Staffordshire bull terrier. She advises the younger generation of handlers to avoid the cliches of the dog world – the pencil skirts with flats, the overly matronly suits “that no 16-year-old junior should wear, ever” – while still hewing to certain show traditions.

“It’s a delicate balance between looking classic and looking dowdy,” she said, and she seems to have a point: In the attempt to be proper yet eye-catching, women sometimes look like disco balls heading to a business meeting.

Owen said she understands. “I mean, if you’ve got a golden retriever and there are like 1,000 dogs of the same color, you need to bring some special attention to you and your dog,” she said.

Still, despite the occasional eye-rolling of the outside world, there’s a touching seriousness to the pursuit of fashion among the dog show elite. Dog people, like the objects of their affection, know how to commit, “even if we’re the last people to still wear tan pantyhose,” Owen said. “The dog show world is single-handed keeping L’eggs in business.”

And some of the junior handlers are beginning to get it right. Clutching her Pomeranian, Dude (aka Toontown’s You Like Totally Rock Dude), Samantha Aimar, 17, of Brownstown Township, Michigan, was less future schoolmarm, more Jackie O. in her ivory jacquard Tahari suit with gold threading, to match the dog’s leash.

Dog show fashion is limited by requirements for Westminster’s green carpet that those on the red carpet don’t have to worry about. It is unlikely, for example, that Jennifer Lopez would have to wear her Elie Saab at the Oscars while doing a 50yard dash with a borzoi.

“People wear a lot of St. John’s suits because the skirts have ‘give’ and you can run in them,” said Roberts, the handler from Oklahoma. “I do like a pencil skirt, but the slit has to be just right: enough so you can run, not too high that you’re showing too much. People wonder why we don’t wear flowing skirts. But think about it: A flowing skirt or jacket can flip in front of the dog, which can hide the dog from the judge.”

Pockets, too, are key for keeping the treats and squeaky toys that get a dog’s attention in the ring. You can learn to tuck bits of chicken or liver into an armband or
camisole, but many handlers have pockets sewn onto their suits. (Just remember to take the bait out. “My dry cleaner doesn’t always like me,” Roberts said.)

Another big requirement: modesty.

“Can I bend over and not show everything in back and in front?” asked Owen, the blogger. “You spend a lot of time either kneeling down or bending over.” She said she weighs “like 100 pounds” and has a large bosom, “which can be awkward.”

And has been, on occasion. Because when you’re trying to look dignified while running in a tight suit that begs for Spanx, wardrobe malfunctions are inevitable. Zippers split, buttons pop, skirt slits become more so.

“One time my shoe flew off while I was moving fast, and it sailed through the air and I heard a woman shout, ‘Incoming!’” Roberts said.

Stains are also an occupational hazard. The good news? Saliva washes out of clothing easily. The bad news?

“It doesn’t easily come off paint on the walls,” said a breeder of Newfoundlands at the show. “Or televisions. Or computer screens.” Her dog was wearing a bib.

And then there’s the footwear. Flats with business suits are flattering to only the most lithe-limbed, which is why dog shows have become synonymous with the word “cankles.” But really, there is no choice.

“I show everything from three-pound dogs to 150 pounds,” said Russella Bowen of Gable, South Carolina, who this year wore a sky-blue St. John’s suit to complement Grayson (aka Palmetto’s Flying Dutchman), a slate-gray hairless Chinese crested.

Different breeds are shown at different gaits, anything from a prance to a Usain Bolt-like sprint. “With the toys you can maybe get away with a little heel,” Bowen said, “but if you’re with, like, a Doberman, you are actually running.”

Bowen, who designed fitnesswear before becoming a handler, said she favors 6-inch stilettos when she’s off duty.

Male handlers fare considerably better at the shows. For one thing, their clothing is not as prone to rips in the wrong places; for another, they don’t need custom-made pockets.

For them, Ted Baker and Robert Graham are perhaps the most popular suit designers. And a little panache goes a long way. The men often match socks with ties and pocket squares, which seems, Kressley said, “a little prom-y,” but they pull it off. 

This year the look was perfectly captured by Colton Johnson of Colorado Springs, Colorado, who showed Bugaboo’s Picture Perfect, the Old English sheepdog who won the herding group and was a finalist for Best in Show. The dog’s working name, fittingly enough: Swagger.

Jessy Sutton, from Philadelphia, and Peter Kubacz, from Jackson, New Jersey, are renowned for their looks. Kubacz, who was campaigning a flat-coated retriever, said he has an 8-by-10-foot closet with walls of shirts, pants and jackets and owns over 300 pairs of shoes.

“I probably think about my clothes more than I need to,” he said.

Sutton and his wife, Roxanne, showed more than 20 dogs at Westminster. One day he was dressed in a cerulean Ted Baker suit with a multicolored striped shirt and paisley bow tie. It all worked, as did the outfit his wife wore, a black appliquéd lace and faux leather dress by Erdem.

“My interest in fashion started because my parents bred Dalmatians,” Sutton said. “I liked wearing black at the time, but it was hard because white hairs would show on everything. That’s how I started having an interest in colors and patterns.”

As in any sport, there are plenty of superstitions, and some center on the fashion.

“I generally won’t wear red or yellow, because those are the colors of the second- and third-place ribbons, and I want to think ‘first,’” Roberts said.

Bowen said: “I know people who have, like, lucky underwear, but I’m not that bad. I do wear three rubber bands to hold my armband in place, and, well, I have noticed I win more when I wear animal prints. But I wouldn’t call that superstitious. Right?”

Indeed, Westminster is the kind of place where wardrobe superstitions are born. Janice Hayes of Lockeford, California, the handler for the English springer spaniel who took best of breed, had nothing to wear for the sporting group competition. She saw her friend Jamie Lamphier showing her Irish setter while wearing a sparkling coral St. John’s suit, and knew it would set off a brown and white spaniel perfectly. So she borrowed the dress. Hayes’ dog won its group with her in coral, so it is a lucky dress; Lamphier is hoping the luck will rub off on her next time.

At around 11:10 p.m. on Feb. 17, Miss P, a 15-inch beagle, won Westminster’s Best in Show title, posing with the customary purple and gold rosette (note to organizers: No one, not even a beagle, looks good against purple and gold). Her next day would be a blur of photo ops, including one eating strip steak at Sardi’s with the designer Michael Kors.

But for the rest, competitor fatigue seemed to quickly sink in. Owners and their charges began to pack up. Ties were loosened, jackets tossed aside. There was a general air of a return to rumpled reality.

And were there a lot of droopy tails, too? “Many of these dogs live for the crowds and the cheering,” Roberts said.

In an elevator leaving the show was a woman in a voluminous cashmere cowl-neck sweater. Peeking out of it were two indignant bulging eyes, backed up by a low, soft growl.

Apparently, the dog was not headed to Sardi’s.

“He hates it when the party’s over,” the woman said.



This story appeared in Animal Scene’s April 2015 issue.