Ahead of SXSW 2022, director Dawn Luebbe joins us on Close-Up Culture to talk about Dress A Cow.
This short film spotlights a 38 year tradition, the “Dress A Cow” event at Ohio’s Canfield County Fair. A meditation on bovine beauty, it reminds us that putting pants on a cow is not like putting pants on a person.
When did you first become aware of the “Dress A Cow” event at Ohio’s Canfield County Fair and what were your first impressions of it?
Inspired by documentaries like Hands on a Hard Body and Well Groomed, I was initially interested in making a competition doc short surrounding a niche, small town community and spotlighting something most people probably didn’t know existed. Additionally, I grew up spending many weekends on my grandparents’ dairy farm in Nebraska, and the bovine world is one that is near and dear to me.
I came across the “Dress A Cow” event on the Canfield County Fair’s website and was immediately intrigued. Early on, I started speaking to Lori Coler who has been running “Dress A Cow” for almost 30 years. The more we spoke the more I realized this was not the cut-throat competition I initially had hoped for…it was actually something much more nuanced and beautiful. It was an event many families participate in year after year and one that brings the entire community together.
The joy and anticipation was less around who would win, and more around what ridiculous costumes the participants could come up with each year and whether or not said costume would stay on the cow.
Can you tell us more about this tradition and what it means to this community?
This year marked the 38th year of the event, and each year it has grown in popularity. One of the aspects of the event that I’m most delighted by is that it’s judged by actual judges: elected officials of Mahoning County. I think that goes to show just how big of a deal it is within the community. It’s probably the most well attended event of the entire fair (aside from the demolition derby, of course).
How was your experience filming at this event and being around the locals?
We had a great experience filming. We were really welcomed with open arms by all of the contestants, judges, and especially Lori, the organizer. When approaching those involved, it was important to me to make clear my goal was never to mock or condescend, but rather to examine and celebrate the event.
I saw some fun photos online of a cow dressed as a minion and another donning the Olympic rings. What were some of your favourite cow outfits on show?
For me, the cow dressed as Tweety Bird really blew me away. She was adorned in yellow and orange fabric from head to hoof, complete with a feather tail and a massive paper mâché head that had hula hoops as a base. The fact it stayed on the cow was especially impressive. There was also a cow dressed as a FedEx truck that was rather unique.
It’s a competitive year for cow movies, with the release of Andrea Arnold’s documentary Cow. What are your hopes for this film at SXSW and beyond?
Ha, yes! It does seem to be the year of the cow in the documentary world. I’m excited for Dress A Cow to finally screen for an audience at SXSW. I think I set out to make a straight-up comedy doc short, and it turned into something a bit more nuanced and earnest. I’m not really sure how an audience will respond!
And in terms of future plans, I’m excited for the short to travel to more festivals in the coming months.