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Basil, just chilling in a jean jacket.
Photo: Barkarama/Rachel Oates Pet Photography

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Dogs Are Wearing Legwarmers Because We’re Not Having Babies

Pup fashion is more popular in the US than ever, but why?

Racked is no longer publishing. Thank you to everyone who read our work over the years. The archives will remain available here; for new stories, head over to Vox.com, where our staff is covering consumer culture for The Goods by Vox. You can also see what we’re up to by signing up here.

Basil wears band T-shirts, frayed denim jackets, and, on days when he’s feeling particularly smart, a belted blue Mackintosh raincoat.

Basil is a dog. A Boston terrier with an enviable wardrobe and almost 3,000 followers on Instagram, Basil is also a sign of our times, a living, breathing symbol of the fashion revolution happening at our feet.

“Basil is such a handsome and chic hound, it seemed only fitting I bought him lovely apparel and accessories,” Basil’s owner, and the founder of pet fashion and lifestyle blog Barkarama, Alex Frith, says. “Plus as a short-haired dog, he really feels the cold in winter, so if he has to wear a coat… I want it to be a nice one.”

Basil in his raincoat.
Photo: Barkarama/Rachel Oates Pet Photography

She buys Basil’s outfits from sites like Pethaus, which stocks denim vests embroidered with “Bark Sabbath” patches, and Lead The Walk, which offers $100+ quilted dog coats alongside fluffy canine bathrobes.

And Frith is far from alone in her pet-fashion habits. Dog apparel is big business: Americans dropped $11 billion in 2015 on treats for their pets, including clothes, while the overall pet industry is predicted to be worth a record $69 billion this year. What was once the preserve of Paris Hilton-style pampered pooches is now increasingly mainstream, with retailers like Target and Walmart offering doggie bowties, party hats, and even faux suede booties.

“I've watched pet fashion evolve from being abnormal to normal,” Dara Foster, a dog stylist who founded her business PupStyle 15 years ago, says. “Pet parents automatically think of buying a rain coat along with a leash and collar as essentials when they adopt a new dog.”

There are even trends within the canine fashion world: Right now, gingham, plaid, and patches are in, according to doggie bloggers.

“By far the hottest trend in dog fashions, especially for Fetch, over the past four months is dog leg warmers,” says Heidi Cox of Fetch Dog Fashions. The second most popular item on her site is — what else? — a poop emoji shirt.

Some dog apparel looks spookily human, like a “Cute But Crazy” slogan tee you might believe was from Forever 21 if it came in human sizes, or a Philadelphia Eagles NFL jersey that’s straight out of your brother’s closet.

So, as dog clothing becomes increasingly mainstream, you might find yourself considering purchasing a cupcake-print tea dress or biker-style faux leather vest for your own pooch. But why?

For Frith, it’s simple. Dogs are “now very much part of family” and deserve to be treated as such, meaning owners might buy pet apparel for practical reasons, to mark a special occasion, or just on a whim.

Don and Chris Vondriska, owners of dog boutique Fido Park Avenue, believe this elevation of the dog from animal to family member is behind the expansion of their business.

“The dog industry is a big business,” they say. “It will continue to grow in the coming years because more families are seeing and loving their dog as a family member.” No longer confined to the kennel, dogs have won their way into our beds, our brunches, and, now, our wardrobes.

“Ari is my baby, and just like you dress up a human child, I dress up my dog,” Maitri Mody, of Honey, I Dressed the Pug, says. “What I enjoy the most is to have a partner in style. We believe in ‘twinning is winning,’ and we have a whole lot of fun doing it.”

One in three pet owners in the US is a millennial, according to market research firm Packaged Facts, while Mintel asserts that three-quarters of Americans in their 30s own a dog. At the same time, the average age at which we first have kids continues to rise and a quarter of millennials may never marry.

Ari, of Honey, I Dressed the Pug.
Photo: @honeyidressedthepug

“The family pet is coming closer to being a person with rights and understanding of what is human seems to be widening,” Annamari Vänskä, a postdoctoral research fellow based at the University of Stockholm’s Centre for Fashion Studies, writes in a 2014 paper. “In some cases, the personified dog is also starting to replace the human/baby/child altogether, becoming the surrogate child.”

And while dogs might not bring all the joys (and responsibilities) of kids, a study of hormonal bonding between humans and other species showed that when dogs look into our eyes we experience the same positive feedback loop mothers undergo with their infant children.

Dogs as a shortcut to building a hassle-free family is a well-documented social phenomenon in Japan, where canine fashion has been mainstream for years. There, demographic shifts are even more dramatic than in the West, with birth rates at an all-time low and many young people feeling they don’t want to or are unable to get married. Vänskä suggests that Japanese women are choosing dogs over children due to expectations that women will quit work to become stay-at-home mothers. Dogs offer a middle ground between career and family.

In China, where pups on the streets of Shanghai and Beijing are frequently spotted in sneakers, babydoll dresses, and raincoats, one psychologist has suggested young people see their furry friends as “a kind of escape from interpersonal relationships,” and substitute romantic partners for dogs.

“The pet becomes a projection of the opposite sex for some people who do not find a partner,” Zhang Jiequn, from Shanghai’s Huada Institute of Applied Psychology, tells AFP.

But not all dog dressers are looking for someone else in their dogs; instead, many seek to reflect themselves. Fashionable dogs can function as cute mini mes for some owners, and their styled get-ups make for potent social media currency.

And while there is a market in fashion for other species — cats have their own fashion show at the Algonquin, bunnies in Japan wear bonnets, and you can even buy a kilt and beret for your bearded dragon — these animals are much less portable than a dog on a leash.

“People have started taking their dogs out to brunches, coffee shops, weekend trips, etc. with them,” says Mody, whose Instagram features fashion inspo for humans and pugs alike. “If you are fashionable, then you want your dog to look great on these outings too. Ari's style is most certainly a reflection of my own. I wouldn't make him wear something that I wouldn't wear myself.”

In fact, pets have long denoted status by signaling that owners possess sufficient disposable income to care for a four-legged friend. Kitting out these cuddly companions in cable-knit sweater dresses or “Pawdidas” athleisure hoodies is an even clearer indication of wealth that goes beyond the basics of bowls, collars, and leashes.

Basil, in a scarf.
Photo: Barkarama/Rachel Oates Pet Photography.

Sharing a sweet snap of your schnauzer in black-framed glasses and a striped jumper is much subtler than posting images of designer purses or glittering bling, but the underlying message to your followers isn’t so different.

“It also feeds the ego of the pet parent,” says pet stylist Foster, who has sold over a million books featuring photos of costumed pets. “Pet parents see their pet's fashion as extension of their own sense of style and love the extra attention they get when they show off their dressed-up pet.”

There’s nothing to suggest dogs don’t like dressing up — Alex Frith reports that Basil “practically bounces” when wearing his favorite gray hoodie from Pethaus — but the dog owners Racked spoke with strongly advise against restrictive or uncomfortable clothes and advise safety first, whatever your reasons for getting your dog dolled up.

“The clothes he wears should enhance his easygoing personality and make him feel comfortable, but at the same time bring out the swag,” Maitri says of her pug Ari.

And that desire for doggy swag is good reason for those in this multibillion-dollar pet-care industry to keep smiling. Because while we might put off buying baby clothes or wedding dresses, we will, in the words of the Vondriskas of Fido Park Avenue, “continue to define who we are through our dogs.”

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