The young woman looked nervous. Perhaps if she’d not been by herself, she wouldn’t have felt as vulnerable as she did walking down a dark city street late at night. Half the street lamps didn’t work, and the ones that did flickered eerily. She hurried from the glow of one lamp to another in an effort to reach the safety of her car quickly when she heard raucous laughing and boastful teasing coming from the darkness ahead – the sounds of teenage boys out for a good time. She pulled her coat tighter around herself and looked around. Should she cross the street to avoid the young men? Duck into an even darker alley? In the time it took her to decide what to do, they were nearly upon her, older boys in high spirits who slowed down when they spotted her.
Ed note: Quickly – and without thinking – describe what are these young men are wearing.
When you’re done, continue reading.
As the group neared the young woman, they stepped into the light under a street lamp. This is when she saw that the half dozen young men were wearing coats and ties, one of them even in a suit. The tension visibly evaporated off the young woman’s face and as she passed the boys, now with more confidence, they politely moved aside to give her space.
What I’ve just described was a commercial that aired on television some thirty years ago. Created for a national council of churches, or maybe youth groups, it was a potent ad that drove home the power of appearances. If you were like most viewers who saw the ad (and if you’re being honest), your description of what these boys were wearing probably included sagging blue jeans, long t-shirts, baseball caps worn backward, hooded sweatshirts and untied sneakers. If you were like most viewers who saw the ad (and if you’re being honest), the commercial ended differently than you thought it would when the boys appeared in coats and ties.
I hadn’t thought of the commercial in years, but a comment made on Facebook in the wake of the recent George Zimmerman verdict jogged my memory of it. In the opinion of the person making the remark, a tragedy resulted because Zimmerman had made a judgment call based on the way Trayvon Martin had looked and dressed. It’s a comment I heard from others, but I’m not revisiting the Zimmerman trial. The verdict was rendered and as far as I’m concerned, the case is closed. I am intrigued, however, by “the power of the hoodie,” or, more specifically, that so much was made of how Trayvon Martin was dressed. I’m struck that so little has has changed since I was a kid. Appearances still matter.
When we were teenagers, women of my generation embraced the British Invasion. We painted eyelashes between our own to imitate Twiggy, and, if we could get away with it, we wore mini-skirts so short they hovered in the nosebleed section of our thighs. Sometimes I got away with it, but when I didn’t, I was always in for a lecture from my mother who said that nice girls didn’t wear skimpy skirts. People would think I was that kind of girl. I never had to ask what that kind of girl was. I just knew.
By the time I was the parent of my own teenagers, the world had loosened up considerably in what we wore, but people still made judgment calls based on appearances and they still do. You think I’m wrong? In any high school, you’ll find “Goths,” “Preppies,” “Skaters,” “Dudes,” “Nerds,” “Rich Asians,” “Emos,” “Cholos,” “Moshers,” “Cutters,” “Jocks” and “Geeks” – and each has their own manner of dress. The monikers may short-change people are who surely individuals, but as I see it, what they wear is tantamount to “sartorial shorthand” for what they’re into.
And then you had my son. This kid wore pants so baggy as a teenager that I wondered how he could walk. Skulls decorated the black t-shirts and hoodies of which he was so fond, and a metal-spiked, black leather wristband completed the punk look. I was horrified. Each and every day, I gasped, “OHMYGOD,” you’re not going out looking like THAT, are you?”
The Circle of Life was complete. I had become my mother.
There were lessons from this stage of his life for both of us. Despite his long hair, the pants he wore that were more “off” than “on,” the ghoulish t-shirts and the metal studded belt he wore outside of school, this kid attended a Jesuit high school where he was an honor student, captain of the varsity soccer team, “Spanish Student of the Year” and a team leader at a religious retreat. He dressed nothing like who he really was, and delighted (reveled, really) in using his look to challenge perceptions. It was his way of teaching the world that you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover.
I was proud of him, of course (though I cringed at his clothing) but I was his mother. As his parent, it was my job to teach him how to avoid trouble and earn (if not show) respect based on the shorthand of clothing. I knew then, as I know now, that while it’s noble to turn a blind eye to outward appearances, sometimes appearances are all we have to go on. It’s the visual equivalent of the old saw, “If you hear galloping, think horses, not zebras.” I wanted him to look for character, but only when he knew he was safe.
DogKnobit is written for and from the perspective of a dog fancier, and while it may seem that I’ve gone wildly off track, I think the whole “appearance thing,” works the same way in the show ring, too. What we wear under our armband reveals something about us, even if it’s not our intention. We telegraph about ourselves everything from how tidy and fastidious we are to how current and up-to-date we are. You might take umbrage with my opinions in the next few paragraphs and that’s okay. Opinions are like eyebrows (everyone has at least one) and here’s my first one: At a dog show, it’s not just about the dog. At some point below, at least one of you is going to think, “The judge is supposed to be looking at the dog.” Yes, and selecting a politician is supposed to be about the issues. Let’s agree that these days, a pretty package will get more notice than a plain one even when both contain the same thing.
As an exhibitor, I know that if there are caveats for dog show attire, it’s that our feet better be in comfortable shoes in which we can run, and our clothes better have pockets. Where I get opinionated is the form in which those shoes and pockets appear.
As an aside, I suffered a child’s indignity of corrective shoes for the flat feet with which I was born. Bad feet stop no woman. I wore Sex in the City shoes for years, cinched my feet into ski boots so tight they were as good as fused with my ankles, and further abused them with the pounding they took on concrete floors at dog shows. Let no woman dare to compare, I am a bona fide martyr to bad feet. I “get” foot pain, so I don’t write this next part lightly.
Sneakers in the show ring. Not a fan. The goose bumps I get when a magnificent Poodle or Afghan Hound floats around a ring melts off my arm the instant my eyes get to the tennis-shoed feet of its handler. This look is as visually disharmonious as tan Hush Puppies paired with a black tuxedo. Ask a judge what they most notice about a handler, and they’ll probably tell you it’s their feet. If I find sneakers distracting to the overall presentation of a lovely dog, a judge probably does, too.
A Google search for “stylish orthopedic shoes” brings up over 104,000 hits, and I’m betting that for every painful foot condition, there’s a dressier alternative to Nikes. While there might be Best in Show photos of a handler wearing tennis shoes out there, not many show up in expensive magazine advertisements for a reason. A handler should dress their feet to win, not to play Wimbledon. There. I said it.
Pants in a conformation ring. Not a fan. Yes, I know they’re comfortable. Yes, I know they help avoid being this person:
If we exhibited our dogs at a dog competition or a dog contest, that would be one thing. But it’s called a dog show, and that makes it more than a simple match. Women who dress for something special typically wear a dress or skirt. Westminster is really special, and consequently, many judges wear gowns while handlers appear on the green carpet in sequins and sparkles. You know what? I like it.
A dog show is a professional environment in which judges and professional handlers are paid to perform their job and amateurs compete with them. Pantsuits may be considered acceptable in many professions, but I’m old school and in conservative circles, slacks are still regarded as casual wear for a female. Sorry, but there it is.
In a recent column written by my favorite veterinarian author, Dr. V., she asks, “Why do female handlers preferentially flock to what I can only describe as mother of the bride suits?”
From A Royal Rube/The Ramblings of a City Girl who Bought the Farm: “Maybe it’s the fact that they [female exhibitors] appear to be dressed for church in 1981 that turns me off so much. I’m almost certain that their lovely polyester suits have not come off the store shelves anytime in the past 20 years…. in the year 2011…here is what the handlers are wearing:
She went on: “I actually find myself having trouble focusing on the actual dogs while these women are running them around the ring, because their outfits are so damn ugly. The intent of the handlers outfit is to showcase the dog and to provide a nice complement to their canine counterparts; not to detract attention.”
From The Wet Nose: “[The] one thing I have found that seems to go hand-in-hand with a thin show lead is terrible fashion sense, especially in regards to female handlers.”
Admittedly, people outside the sport wrote these comments – but I hear similar sentiments every time a dog show airs on national television. What’s up with the dowdy suits? Why are junior handlers dressed like their spinster aunts? Or the ultimate dagger: What was she thinking?
As someone who’s had her share of fashion mistakes, I’m sympathetic to the challenge of finding the right clothes for the show ring. It seems to be a rule of nature that the perfect dog show outfit – the one that makes us look 20 pounds lighter and ten years younger – either doesn’t come with pockets or even remotely in our size. Most people from outside the sport have no idea what a female handler has to consider when selecting an outfit: Do the clothes compliment the dog? Does the color hide a wonderful topline or accentuate a cowlick we’d rather hide. Is the skirt so “flouncy” that it blocks the dog, or so tight that we can’t run well enough to show the dog’s movement? Is the skirt so short that admission should be charged for the peep show we put on every time we bend over, or so long that it optically impacts the dog’s size? Will the material stain from bait, wrinkle before group judging, have a place to hold liver, clean easily? Can it be put on in the space of a bathroom stall? Can we afford it AND have enough left to enter a dog show?
I get it, I really do. But I also think the authors of the aforementioned comments have a point. Here’s a sampling of what came up with a Google image search on “dog show outfits.”
These are lovely – safe – outfits. After thirty years in the fancy, I’ve had a couple like them in my own closet. But our sport, already facing difficulty, is said to be out of touch. What some of us are wearing may not be helping. If we’re to change perceptions, let alone attract younger people for whom appearances do matter, could it be high time to update our look? If there’s safety in numbers, don’t we want dog lovers to look at us and think, “I want to be that person?” Don’t we usually notice the exhibitor who’s wearing something different, attractive and modern? Don’t we always hear something about what the female judges wore at Westminster or Eukanuba?
And when the handler looks pulled together, tidy and well groomed, don’t we subliminally think of the dog they’re handling in the same way?
It can be a trial to find a great outfit, but it’s not impossible.
- My daughter’s generation caught on quickly,and through her I learned that second hand shops, Goodwill, and thrift stores like Savers are a goldmine for shoppers willing to pick through racks of circa 1970s disco polyester suits. Guess what, these stores can surprise you. I’ve snagged designer clothes so new, the pockets to the Ralph Lauren jacket were still stitched shut, and the sales tag to the Anthropologie skirt was still attached;
- Etsy is a global web site specializing in handmade and vintage items, including clothing, while Artfire provides original, one-of-a-kind fashions. Both sites make it easy to deal directly with designers, seamstresses and tailors in case a customer wants to request that a garment be made with pockets, in a particular color or fabric, or even ask to negotiate a price;
- Pinterest is a good source for getting ideas and sources. If you’re unfamiliar with the site, forgive me now for introducing you to a new addiction;
- If the Ann Taylor suits of your dreams was out-of-sight expensive, look for it on Ebay or do a Google search for “discounted Ann Taylor suit.” You might be surprised at your options;
- Never pass on a garment because it doesn’t have pockets. Do-it-yourselfers can easily add pockets using these instructions, while those of us who lack time or know-how might consider approaching students at local vocational, technical or opportunity schools. Students need the practice (and the spare income), and the pockets will be attached at a better price than what most tailors charge.
Clichés become clichés for a reason: They’re time-tested. Dress for success. Power clothes. Dress for the job you want. I’m not saying that with the right clothes, a dog will become a group contender because at the end of the day, the quality of dog is what matters. All things being equal, what I am suggesting is that it’s naïve to think that our own appearance doesn’t have impact in the show ring, on the people who watch us, may be looking for the breeder of their next dog, or simply makes us look like someone a newbie can trust.
Both fine actors below, but who would you rather have on your arm at a party? I rest my case.