Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show remains comfortably old fashioned

Sarah Cox visits the 138th Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show and finds an event set in its ways, old fashioned, and unlikely to change anytime soon.

The Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show, which held its Best In Show competition Tuesday night at Madison Square Garden, has been running for 138 years, making it the second longest continuous sporting event in America. Only the similarly animal-powered Kentucky Derby has been at it longer.

It’s not quite sufficient to say that Westminster has been slow to modernize. Recent changes aside, it has steadfastly resisted anything that even looks like change for years. But this year's event included "mutts" --i.e. non-purebred dogs-- which qualifies as a veritable breakthrough by Westminster standards. Sure, the non-purebreds were relegated to the agility contest and barred from the Best In Show beauty contest, but this was a real ideological shift all the same. Fifteen mutts participated against more than 200 purebreds in the agility round, which was eventually won by a purebred border collie named Kelso.

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That relative leap forward aside, change was hard to find at Westminster this year. There were more flat screen televisions than last year, maybe, and they flashed the dog show’s official Twitter handle between rounds of breed judging. Otherwise, not much has changed at all. Even the Best In Show winner, a wire fox terrier named Sky -- he has his own website, if you were wondering -- was the 14th wire fox terrier to claim the honor. The breed averages a little better than one Best In Show win per decade.

Visually, too, Westminster seems stuck in time. Head judge Betty Regina Leininger donned an elegant full-length purple gown for the main event on Tuesday, her sixth time judging at Westminster. Much like the Derby, Westminster fosters its very own unique sense of fashion. Men favor conservative suits, but no other sport is so dominated by the skirt suit, and the humans accompanying their dogs through their paces generally favor the sort of conservative attire more generally associated with secretaries and bank tellers. Here, in 2014 -- a good 14 years after Best In Show was in theaters -- you will find ladies in knee length hems and blazers, often with rhinestones or shiny accents.

The blazer jacket may well remain prevalent for another 138 years, if only for practical reasons: handlers require an outfit that holds dog treats in easily accessible pockets. Pair this with sensible shoes -- handlers have to jog the dogs around in a circle -- and the distinctive costumes at Westminster seem almost practical. In a year during which the dog show actually overlapped with New York Fashion week, Westminster’s attire was refreshingly, if not shockingly, anti-trend.

Westminster advises competitors that, for humans, "the outfit should not distract from the dog." And, ultimately, Westminster’s most strenuous beautification efforts are focused on the dogs, not the humans. The backstage area, where the general public can wander around and get much closer to the competitors, is a busy hum of bathing, blow dryers, brushing, clipping and spritzing.

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Westminster’s winning dog gets to play tourist in Manhattan on the day after the big win. It is tradition that the Best In Show winner enjoys lunch at the famous Theater District restaurant, Sardi’s. In 2012, the city’s Department of Health threatened to put a stop to the practice, as it breaks a rule against animals in restaurants. At the last minute, Mayor Bloomberg and his health commissioner reached an agreement and allowed the Best In Show lunch date to go forward.

There’s something to both this particular Department of Health conflict and its resolution. It’s helpful, maybe, to think of Westminster as a beloved heartland relative. She’s older than the health code era, she is set in her ways and dowdy and affectionate and wildly out of place in fashion-conscious New York City. She could give a big shit if you think she’s cool. She plans on being around for another 138 years, at least.

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