New York Fashion Week and Westminster Dogs: lots of prancing in NYC this week

It is one of those rare poetic coincidences that both the Westminster Dog Show and New York Fashion Week unfolded in the same week this year. Some might even call it proof of an intelligent, if satirical, design behind cultural history.

Imagine: while pedigree dogs bred and trained to an arbitrary standard are parading around one floor in Manhattan at the same time mostly overly thin and mostly female models with who knows what surgeries, maquillage and other enhancements applied to imitate another arbitrary standard are parading around another Manhattan floor.

The news media and television entertainment programming have dedicated extensive space and time to both these shows. Fashion plays into the greater universe of celebrity culture, since celebrities are often the ones who wear the newest fashions or sell fashions to the consumer. As celebrity culture has grown, so has interest in these fashion shows. 

In the same way, the growth of interest in the Westminster Dog Show mirrors the growth in America’s interest in dogs and other pets, as witnessed by the growing number of new products for dogs that come out each year, the growth of spending on dogs, the growth of advertising of pet products and the growth in the use of dogs as a cultural icon in other commercials. Consider, for example, the TV ad in which someone is walking a dog when his button bursts from overeating. Or the one in which a dog drinks beer with his master. The one in which a woman tells her dog that she reacts to eating a cereal the way the pooch reacts to having its belly scratched. The list of dogs popping up in commercials for other products in recent years is endless.   

What’s most interesting is that in the case of both the animals and the models , these living embodiments of perfect form prance gracefully in front of the adoring crowds not just for themselves, but to glorify a third party. In the case of the dogs, it’s their owners and trainers. In the case of the models, it’s the designers whose clothes adorn their bodies.

At least the dogs get to do tricks and demonstrate their intelligence. The models could readily be replaced by a future generation of robots that looked and moved as humans do.

In the real world, most people like seeing an attractive person in interesting or provocative dress in the street, even if they would never go to a fashion show. We don’t always feel so positively about dogs, which can be big and mean-looking, howling or whimpering viragos, dangerously left to wander without leash or not cleaned up after by the master.

It’s ironic then that in the world of shows, it’s the models who are getting into trouble with the neighbors. Like its Parisian version, the New York Fashion Show is a tent affair, erected in front of Lincoln Center in Damrosch Park. Residents are complaining that between setting up, operating and taking apart two Fashion Shows and a circus, the park is out of commission for 10 months out of every year.  The New York Times reported yesterday that a group of residents and a group called NYC Park Advocates announced that they had sent a “cease and desist” letter to the city and to Lincoln Center demanding that Damrosch Park be returned to its proper use as a city park.

We could break every week down to a series of three to five cultural stories that represent the playing out of long-term trends in ideological indoctrination. This week, for example, to Fashion Week and the Westminster Dog Show we might add the death of Whitney Houston, the excitement created because a devoutly Christian professional basketball player of Chinese descent played six good games and the Republicans relenting on offsets to the continuation of the temporary cut in the Social Security tax. 

Beneath these immediate stories lurk ideological imperatives: the culture of celebrity; the commoditization of emotion; the idea that the private sector solves all economic problems and government none. That two of these stories are shows that take place in New York merely suggests how much the mass culture of consumption now dominates the public marketplace of ideas.

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