It has been decades since the Big Dog hit the scene, and the world may never know: Is it a St. Bernard? A Newfoundland? The answer is inconsequential and you should be ashamed for asking, because Big is all that matters.
Generations of schoolchildren, beer-drinking dads, and bros across the nation have fond memories of the first time they donned the Big Dog. Loud, proud, and impeccably talented at wordplay, this boisterous and jowly creature has served as both a cultural touchstone and a burden for school principals and concerned parents across the nation.
For such an important icon, you have to wonder: Whatever happened to Big Dogs? For years, the brand was nigh inescapable alongside its polarizing novelty clothing peers, Big Johnson and Coed Naked. While many people never stopped running with the Big Dogs through their rise and fall, the brand has kept a low profile throughout the 2010s.
For A Time, Big Dog Was EverywherePhoto: Full House / ABC
For anyone who was in grade school during the 1990s and early aughts, there were big puppies as far as the eye could see. Thousands of young Americans did their time in the principal’s office for their provocative shirts. Many a mother was appalled by her child’s new sartorial acquisition. And grilling dads across the nation were cooking with the Big Dogs.
Big Dog prided itself on its larger than life outlook - big dogs, big personalities, and big people. That’s why the brand manufactured shirts up to size XXXXXL, a practical application of the “Big Dog Attitude.”
In addition to being widely accessible to consumers of all sizes, Big Dog Sportswear director Steve Dawson emphasized:
You don’t remember the medium sized guy wearing the funny T-shirt. You remember the guy that’s a XXXXXL. You wanna be the top dog. You wanna be the lead dog. You wanna be the big dog.
Big Dog Made A Big Splash In Pop CulturePhoto: The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air / NBC
While Big Dog had no problem cultivating its own unique aesthetic and vernacular, the brand frequently interfaced with popular culture. Wrestling shirts depicting "Hollywoof Hound Hogan" and "Bone Cold Steve Pawstin" debuted in 1989, and Will Smith made a cameo in some classy original Big Dogs on the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.
In fact, the most popular Big Dog shirt of all time was a South Park parody, predictably called “South Bark.” Cartman, Kenny, Kyle, and Stan were given the trademark St. Bernard-adjacent dog faces and the caption, "Oh my Gawd, they fixed Kenny!"
At Its Peak, The Brand Had 215 Stores Spread Across The USPhoto: Big Dogs
At this point, the brand had transcended the realm of image and catchphrase, branching out into an entire way of life. Anyone who donned the garb and committed to the attitude could become a Big Dog, and the kids whose parents could afford the most novelty t-shirts were automatically the coolest and biggest of dogs.
The psychosocial implications of the Big Dog were hyper-masculine in nature: There is no room for weakness, and you must take up as much space as possible. The Big Dog empire did that, quite literally. In 2001, the brand peaked at 215 stores spread across the United States.
Strip Malls Started Drawing People Away From Outlet MallsPhoto: Big Dogs
Unfortunately, the biggest dog of all is the invisible hand of the free market. By the mid 2000s, strip malls boasting large retailers became more desirable destinations than the outlets of the previous decade.
In addition, e-commerce had become more accessible to the wider public, and outlet malls saw a steep drop in profits. Big Dog tried to stay relevant in the shifting market, but they lost their stranglehold on the novelty shirts market to mall stores like Hot Topic and Spencer's.