They’re Wearing What? Dog Show Handlers Edition

Five years ago, I wrote a blog post about the fashion choices of dog handlers after watching the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show.

I had no idea that this piece would receive the most engagement of any piece of mine to date. It would seem that many others have watched dog shows like Westminster and Crufts on TV and have questioned the wide array of sequined suits and clodhopper shoes on the female handlers. While there may not be a designated dress code, there is an unspoken tradition of wearing ill-fitting, dated clothes, and not a lot has changed in the years that have passed since my original piece went live.

I didn’t write this piece in an effort to be rude or mean spirited, and if I had to do it all over again I probably would have phrased things differently. I was writing for a fashion blog, not a dog show blog, and I wasn’t pretending to be a dog handler or to know all the ins and outs of that job. Handler fashion seemed to be a well-known point of interest, and I thought it would be fun and lighthearted — even helpful and informative. Quite a few commenters agreed with me:

“Watching the AKC and it’s ridiculous how much the suits worn by the female handlers are distracting from the dogs — Several are wearing shiny taffeta suits in horrendous colors — the standard should be revised to dark colors — You never get distracted by what the [male] handlers are wearing!”
“The women handlers all look so dowdy, not only because of the length of the skirts and the flat shoes, but because the clothes they wear are downright ugly…What is this with tradition that women have to wear skirts? Why the need for bling, sparkles? I don’t get it. It is a sporting event not a formal gala.”
“I just watched the Purina show again. I am so happy people are talking about this. I think women should as a group begin to change things. Let’s put things on a level playing field with the men. I say well-tailored pant suits are the way to go. Why do women have to wear skirts and jackets? This is 2015 not 1950! And who says you have to bling?! Men don’t wear a tux! If you all start making the change it will eventually catch on.”
“I’m watching the National Dog Show and became so distracted by the women handlers attire that I decided to try to find out why the continued dowdy outfits. Do not understand why they can’t wear a pantsuit that fits.”
“I’m flabbergasted by the comically-atrocious attire…the dog world needs MORE posts like this!”

Others were less than thrilled, and I can understand why. While makeover shows and “fashion police” style articles were common when the piece was written, these days fashion is far more live-and-let-live. That certainly isn’t to say no one passes judgement anymore, but acceptance of personal style is far more widespread.

But dog show handlers don’t seem to dress the way they do because they want to. They seem to feel like they have to, and I refuse to believe that’s true.

My initial call-out was for handlers to look for better fitting, modern suiting that still addressed their practical requirements:

  • Comfortable shoes for ease of running in the ring
  • Wash-and-wear, affordable clothing
  • Pockets to hold treats and combs
  • Coverage for bending over and squatting down

If you’ve ever watched a dog show in your life, you’ve seen the shoes. They’re rough. I fully understand the need for comfort and practicality, but I have never believed function and style are mutually exclusive. Ballet flats seemed like a logical alternative to a cloddy sneaker, but that suggestion was not well received.

“Ballet flats would slip on the carpeted floor.”
“No ballet flats…your feet hurt like murder after a few hours. Just looking at battle flats makes my feet ache.”
“Everyone who does not show dogs comments on our dowdy shoes. Yes, sketcher type shoes are pretty popular because they’re comfortable for most people and you can run in them. Even if you’re showing a toy breed, the carpet can be very slippery and you don’t want to fall in the ring. I know it looks silly to wear a skirt with these type of shoes, but it would look much sillier to wear heels to a dog show and then fall down.”

Others understood where I was coming from:

“The shoes are awful, and not likely supportive since some of their ankles roll inward. I am all about comfort, especially in footwear; many brands such as Clarks, BOC, Born, uniform or safety shoes without steel toes can be very comfortable and somewhat stylish. A well-fitting shoe with arch support, cushioned sole, and covers the instep is most supportive and comfortable. Even a low heel (up to 2”) especially in a wedge can be very comfortable.”

I will say that the specific flats I suggested may not have been the best choice. I chose flats with ankle straps to address the issue of them slipping, but they didn’t have much traction and didn’t look particularly comfortable for a full day in the show ring. The good news is that comfort footwear has come a long way in the past five years! Brands like Trotters, Walking Cradles, Abeo, Dansko, BeautiFeel, and Borns all have ballet flat options that are perfectly stylish and ready to run around the ring.

Interestingly enough, there are some handlers who have very strong shoe game but lose it from the ankles up. Bright, intrusive colors, sequins, and awkward seam lines might seem like a choice that would “wow” the judges, but it ends up distracting from the dogs.

Apparently, this isn’t by chance, but commonplace advice among handlers.

“I was always told to wear bright blues, greens etc., because my black dog will stand out against those colors so the judge can easily see the dogs. If I wear a dark black or navy colored skirt I would blend right into my dog. This is why you will see such crazy colors in the ring, those people are trying to help their dogs stand out from them. So in their defense, that’s why their outfits are so ‘loud.’”
“I show golden retrievers and I can dress in black and be fine. But someone who is showing a black lab…should not dress in black, but an eye catching color, so the judge notices them in the crowd.”

I’m all for a bold color moment if it’s the right bold color. I’ve seen handlers wear reds and corals and pull them off beautifully, and certain blue tones can work.

But shiny beaded skirts and jackets? Or glossy gold buttons? Or brocade? At a certain point, you’re not standing out for the right reasons anymore.

I also don’t particularly follow the logic that the dog won’t stand out next to a neutral color. For one, black isn’t the only neutral option — a light grey would work with most dog breeds, and navy is a great alternative to black.

Also, since most handlers wear skirts that cut off at the knee, the majority of the dog would be seen next to the handlers’ legs, not their outfit.

I would think dresses or pants would be no-brainer alternatives for handlers. Dresses with pockets are commonplace now, but you never see them in the ring — as one commented on my original post,

“There is no unspoken rule about dresses, separates are just easier.”

But why? Isn’t one piece to throw on easier to think about than two or three pieces if you’re wearing a skirt suit?

And as for pants, they seem to solve every requirement handlers have, and in 2019, why not?

They have pockets and a waistband. They come in all colors. You don’t have to think about them riding up when you bend over. They cover the majority of a shoe. They cover the legs, so no need for panty hose.

Boy, did I hear an earful about panty hose. From a practical standpoint, it’s worth mentioning that panty hose make it easier for your skirt to slide up or your shoe to slip off. They’re also generally uncomfortable, tight, and sweaty. But you wouldn’t think that from the comments I received.

“I can tell that the person that wrote this article is a young twit. Get this through your heads young people: EVERYONE DOES NOT HAVE GOOD LOOKING LEGS. I’ll be damned if I go out without pantyhose on and have a draft going up my you know what.”
“I’m wearing pantyhose for the rest of my life, no matter what others think.”
“I’m older. I grew up wearing pantyhose and I’m comfortable wearing them. I’ve found that fashion has changed today, and younger women just don’t wear pantyhose anymore. But it does make your legs look better. When I’m watching the news, the weathergirls never wear pantyhose and you can tell. To me, they just look like they’re freezing and their legs just don’t look as good.”
 
 “I don’t want to wear just pants for the rest of my life. If I wear a skirt, I wear pantyhose. I also don’t want to wear opaque tights all the time if I’m wearing a skirt.”

If you adore your panty hose, I guess to each their own. It seems we have the dog show industry to thank for keeping them on the market.

I have been grateful over the years to hear from frustrated handlers who wish the unwritten “dress code” were different:

“My first dog show I really didn’t research proper attire and got a comment later that the judge made said that if I had dressed better my dog would have placed better.”
“I am new to the dog show world and the ‘dress code’ stinks! If we are running our dogs, we should wear running shoes and if we need pockets we should wear pants, or skirts that have pockets, or heaven forbid dresses. It is time to look at comfort and convenience. I for one will wear dresses with pockets and running shoes!”
“I would advocate a dress policy which required all handlers to wear black pants with black jackets and black shoes. The men never look ludicrous; the women, almost always.”
“I also am relatively new to the dog show world (about 1 year). I also agree that many of the women handlers wear skirt suits/dresses that seem over the top, if not downright silly. I have been told that’s what I need to wear if I want to win. I have refused….I, like a few others above, wear pants and a nice blouse with a blazer or light sweater. I might even wear a pant suit for a big show. That really should be more than acceptable. I don’t know whether my choice of dress has hurt my dog, but if it has, shame on the dog show judges and anyone who supports dresses and skirts only if you want to be a successful woman handler. We are in the 21st century!”
“I show dogs in Australia and here the shiny, ill-fitting skirt suit (many of them imported from the U.S.) is also the choice of the majority of female dog exhibitors. Eeeeeek! My dogs are beautiful and win! I want to compliment them with my dress. Whether we care to acknowledge it or not, a judge cannot help but be subconsciously influenced by the presentation of handlers.”
“I show dogs, have for years, and I look for cheap clothing where ever I can, BUT I also learned to sew. I put pockets in jackets, skirts, dresses almost everything I buy.”
“I’ve only worn dress pants because they had pockets. On top I’ve worn a classic cardigan (buttoned) or a jacquard woven jacket (buttoned). I have since discovered the bait pouch on a strap around waist, but I still want pockets — I dare not leave my cell or keys at the grooming table…I appreciate reading the opinions, and wish that slacks were more appropriate. However I notice the “winners” all seem to have a tailored skirt suit. Really bugs me to think I would have to develop a skirt suit wardrobe…I guess to get anywhere in this dog show business I have to do what I see the other winners doing.”

I don’t know if I have a perfect answer for handlers. It seems if you buck tradition you may be judged more harshly than your dog, and if you maintain tradition you run the risk of looking ridiculous. That’s a lose-lose situation, and as a mere spectator I’m not going to pretend to understand the effort it takes to toe that line.

No one feels good wearing something they don’t want to wear. No one feels good being told they have to wear something they don’t want to wear. I think for any profession, you have to look and feel your best in order to succeed, and if you’re confident in your outfit, it will show in your performance.

Too bad the dogs don’t understand the struggle.