Celebrating Queer Voices in Fashion

Yesterday, the Supreme Court deemed the Defense of Marriage Act unconstitutional. What a way to set off the weekend’s Pride celebrations! With the fanfare, comes the fashion, an open playground for redefinition, expression and outlandish style. There’s sure to be rainbow regalia, wigs, glitter, leather, heels and muscle tees galore. It prompted me to think about high fashion’s relationship to queer style. To outsiders, it seems fashion’s kings are gay male designers, the fabulous creators of straight female threads. I started to wonder about labels and designers outside of this well-known dichotomy.
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Yesterday, the Supreme Court deemed the Defense of Marriage Act unconstitutional. What a way to set off the weekend’s Pride celebrations! With the fanfare, comes the fashion, an open playground for redefinition, expression and outlandish style. There’s sure to be rainbow regalia, wigs, glitter, leather, heels and muscle tees galore. It prompted me to think about high fashion’s relationship to queer style. To outsiders, it seems fashion’s kings are gay male designers, the fabulous creators of straight female threads. I started to wonder about labels and designers outside of this well-known dichotomy.
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Yesterday, the Supreme Court deemed the Defense of Marriage Act unconstitutional. What a way to set off the weekend’s Pride celebrations! With the fanfare, comes the fashion, an open playground for redefinition, expression and outlandish style. There’s sure to be rainbow regalia, wigs, glitter, leather, heels and muscle tees galore. It prompted me to think about high fashion’s relationship to queer style. To outsiders, it seems fashion’s kings are gay male designers, the fabulous creators of straight female threads.

I started to wonder about labels and designers outside of this well-known dichotomy. Where were the lesbian, trans and queer voices in the world of fashion? Androgyny has recently become a buzz word in the modeling industry, with gender bending models experiencing new found success. Take for instance, artist and model Casey Legler, a woman who signed to Ford's male board, or Brazilian transgendered model Lea T, and androgynous, male-bodied models, David Chiang and Andrej Pejic.

Helmut Newton captures Le Smoking

Helmut Newton captures Le Smoking

Of course fashion's obsession with androgyny is nothing new--Yves Saint Laurent’s iconic androgynous interpretation of menswear in 1967’s Le Smoking is perhaps one of the most potent proofs of this. But, nowadays, there are brands devoted to rewriting fashion’s norms, reconstructing a visual language for folks who often are underrepresented.

Qwear, a queer fashion blog that features founder Sonny Oram’s dapper/dandy/clean-cut aesthetic, found a home on Tumblr, among a legion of queer style blogs. Displaying everything from binding tips to the perfect mini boutonniere, Oram says, “I found clothes that fit my gender identity, for the first time in my life. I was excited about it and wanted to showcase it somehow. Then all of these queer clothing companies started popping up. I happened to be at the right place at the right time for this kind of project to take off.”

In the world of Queer fashion, timing seems to be everything.

Though the need for gender non-conforming clothing has existed for generations, it's only now that some of the beloved brands featured on Qwear (like Marimacho, Androgyny, The Butch Clothing Company, Fourteen, and St. Harridan just to name a few) are flourishing. Emma McEllroy, half of the duo behind Wildfang, a tomboy brand based in Portland, says, “Androgyny was [a big] theme in 2012, and the fashion gods have taken off the handcuffs a little bit. Now there's room to play.”

A Marlene Dietrich-inspired look from Wildfang

A Marlene Dietrich-inspired look from Wildfang

Wildfang’s curated mix of tailored button downs, oxford shoes, Pendleton-esque prints and bold, brassy jewelry hails inspiration from an eclectic batch of tomboys: Tilda Swinton, Marlene Dietrich, Diane Keaton, Francoise Hardy and Patti Smith. The brand makes a point to tout itself as one "for tomboys," a term that is not associated with sexual orientation. Wildfang seeks to redefine the language of femininity by questioning what femininity even means. Says McEllroy, “For us, tomboy is about rocking a menswear-inspired style and a confident, cheeky, badass attitude. We pride ourselves on being a place where all tomboys call home, irrespective of their sexuality.”

A Queer History of Fashion: From the Closet to the Catwalk explores the contributions of gay fashion designers throughout history. The volume’s editor, Valerie Steele, is the Director and Chief Curator at The Museum of the Fashion Institute of Technology, and is gearing up for the eponymous art show that will open there on September 13. “I think that it’s important to acknowledge the incredible contributions of designers, photographers, makeup artists, art directors, journalists—[and styles like] leather, uniforms, drag. They have had an influence in making fashion more diverse and creative. If you can put gay people back into history, then you can see that's been ignored. It's never been officially acknowledged.”

But what about lesbian, queer and trans designers?

“With lesbian fashion, what's been more significant is how the lesbian community has created their own vernacular styles," Steele explains. "The whole 'garçon look' of the 1920s became high fashion for a lot of women. Lesbian and bi-sexual women designers have been less 'out' then men have. Maybe it's because it’s tough enough being a woman, without calling additional attention to yourself.”

Sonny Oram believes that stigma is a huge part of why there’s still a void of lesbian designers. “The age-old stereotype is that lesbians can't dress themselves, and gay men can. I think the challenges of overcoming the stereotype for lesbians are harder. While gay men have certainly been marginalized, [they] have a lot of value [in fashion]--whereas queer women's fashion sense has been deemed comical at best by popular culture.”

A look from Marimacho

A look from Marimacho

Challenges to find appropriate clothing are a common theme among queer and transgendered designers, including Cy Lauz, creator of the transgendered women’s lingerie line, Chrysalis, or the Brooklyn-based Marimacho, which creates “classic fashion for the unconventionally masculine.” The impetus to start the brand came out of co-founder and Managing Director Crystal González-Alé’s tough search for gender appropriate clothing. “I've always been masculine presenting. At a size 3, 110 lbs.--men's clothes [didn’t] fit. Along with her partner, designer Ivette González-Alé, this dynamic duo has put queer politics and socially responsible ethics at the heart of their business.

“Ivette is Cuban and Mexican, formerly undocumented; my parents are Cuban immigrants—it's difficult to justify a queer clothing line when you're not taking other things into account,” says González-Alé, about their choice to work with a woman-owned garment factory in the fashion district of Manhattan. “It’s literally sweat-free, they have air-conditioning. Local production is important politically. We put [our line] out there to empower our community. We're not making a t-shirt then fucking with women of color that live half a world away.”

Crystal and Ivette from Marimacho

Crystal and Ivette from Marimacho

Like the name Wildfang, Marimacho plays on language and assumptions. Marimacho is a Spanish portmanteau that denotes tomboy, but in a pejorative way. They see naming their brand as a way to reclaim the term and its meaning. With an upcoming Spring 2014 fashion show, and a made-to-measure service to create formfitting suits and tailored clothes—they’re growing as much as the demand for their brand.

As Marimacho says, “Long gone are the fashion stereotypes of... tragically unstylish masculine women; the modern queer aesthetic is dapper, edgy, and unapologetically sexy.”

We couldn’t agree more.

Check out some designs from the labels mentioned in this story.

Tanwi Nandini Islam is a writer and artist living in Brooklyn, NY. Her debut novel is forthcoming by Viking Penguin. Follow her @tanwinandini.