There is something tragicomic about a dog in a sombrero. Dogs have a natural way of telegraphing self-defeat with their dumb, mournful eyes, and the addition of a well-considered costume nicely punctuates that expression of exhausted surrender. Take a square look at a beagle-pug mix wearing bumblebee wings on its back and you’ll receive its psychic communication with crystal clarity: ‘I used to run wild, and rule the earth,’ its eyes insist. ‘I chased down anything smaller than me, and several things much larger. I was feared, free, murderous. So, how did I end up in a striped diaper?’ The psychological implications of a dog in costume might be horrible if they weren’t so completely adorable.

Each Halloween season for the past five years, Brooklyn has celebrated humanity’s victory over canines in an event called ‘The Great Pupkin.’ Here, a dedicated community of dog owners strap their furry best friends into capes, helmets, sunglasses, and bras to parade around Fort Greene Park, like Roman generals leading a procession of their conquered prisoners, to the delight of onlookers. The costumed dogs are then evaluated in several categories—among them style, originality, attention to detail, and sex appeal—by a panel of expert judges including, this year, a member of city council and a police officer. (Every city event since the World Trade Center attack seems to enlist at least one police officer or fireman as a local celebrity. Even at the Great Pupkin contest, the appearance of New York’s Finest received a generous ovation, its enthusiasm challenged only by the later reception to a small Jack Russell Terrier dressed as Seabiscuit.)

More than 50 dogs competed this year, but in this writer’s opinion, there was very little competition. Discounting the costumes that were clearly store-bought—although the sight of a bulldog dressed as a Sheriff, complete with fake human arms, brought me an absolutely perverse joy—most of the dogs were wrapped up in scarves and bolts of cheap fabric, or swaddled in t-shirts from BabyGap. One dog was introduced as ‘a wolf in sheep’s clothing.’ When it finally made its way into the judging circle, and turned out to be just a German Shepherd with a fleece seat-cover draped over its back, for a moment the entire audience involuntarily surged toward the center, ready to tear the dog and owner apart as a remedy for our disappointment.

Many of the more inspired costumes were also, perhaps not coincidentally, tremendously camp. In attendance were a pug as a unicorn with a full, flowing pink mane, a Rottweiller as a ballerina, the cast of The Wizard of Oz billed as ‘Friends of Dorothy,’ and three Ridgebacks in wigs and matching airbrushed ‘Bootylicious’ t-shirts, dressed as Destiny’s Child. The appearance of Destiny’s Child was three times delayed, which is typical of divas, and when they finally appeared, the dogs immediately shook their perfectly-manicured wigs hard, until they hung upside-down like beards. However, even disheveled and unintentionally bearded, the Ridgebacks still made more appealing women than Joey Arias.

A few of the costumes left the crowd and judges totally flummoxed. Typical of the myopia common to the most hardcore dog lovers, their costumes reflected jokes so impossibly inside as to suggest the owner had rarely, if ever, talked to anyone besides his veterinarian or the customer service representatives at the Dapper Dog mail-order canine haberdashery. One contestant, for example, was announced as ‘Steadman the Man.’ My first thought was ‘Carl Steadman?’ and my second thought was, ‘Wait. Who’s Carl Steadman? Did I just make that name up?’ The dog, a medium-sized unremarkable breed with the coloring of tooth moss, answered neither of my questions. In fact, its costume required multiple layers of intimate knowledge. First, that ‘Steadman’ was the dog’s name; that Steadman was male; and that, were Steadman a human male instead of a dog, he would celebrate by wearing a dish towel cape and urinating in public.

Let’s get something straight. Dogs do not think they’re people; people think dogs are people. The Great Pupkin, and the wild approval for each of its contestants, is irrefutable evidence for that argument. The dogs competed but we, as their masters, had won. And our domestication of these funny creatures came with the inalienable right to pamper them, photograph them in bathing suits, and share that joy with our friends via Web-rings and email. As cheers went up for this year’s big winner—a morbidly obese Newfoundland dressed as diet and fitness guru, Richard Simmons—I wondered if any of the people around me realized that in other countries most of these dogs would be eaten.


TMN Contributing Writer¬†Todd Levin was a writer for The Tonight Show With Conan O’Brien. He has also written for GQ, Esquire, Vanity Fair, and Salon. He lives in Los Angeles, where he comforts himself in knowing at least the sun is bright. More by Todd Levin