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It’s Time to Rewrite a Queer History of Fashion

Museum at FIT’s latest exhibit, Queer History of Fashion: From the Closet to the Catwalk, shines a fascinating historical perspective on LGBTQ fashion over the past 300 years--but it isn't without its shortcomings.
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A portrait of Oscar Wilde greets visitors upon entry at the Museum at FIT’s latest exhibit, Queer History of Fashion: From the Closet to the Catwalk. As the 19th century’s ultimate dandy, Wilde embraced what he alliterated as the “dangerous and delightful distinction of being different.” Surrounding his portrait are quintessential examples of 19th century fashion: woolen black frock coats and long skirts. Upon closer inspection, subtle, subversive details emerge. Starched shirts and bowties on women’s clothing served as purposeful masculine elements to signify lesbian identity. A three-piece men’s suit from 1790s France, made in velvet and silk, stands out for its olive green hue—once considered effeminate in the era of early capitalism, when sober colors and stiff textiles defined white, Western masculinity.

Finding the ensembles was an arduous two-year process for historian Valerie Steele, chief curator, and Fred Dennis, senior curator of costume, who assembled the exhibit with the help of personal and museum collections. Says Steele, “I think people will be very surprised that the show goes back to the 18th century. We could’ve done a very different show, which would have focused on the last 50 years in fashion, and lots of gay designers. But I wanted to put it in context. This isn’t just something that’s happened from the '70s until now. This is something that’s been a part of fashion history. In a way, it’s been hidden. This show is reclaiming the gay and lesbian past and putting it back into fashion explicitly. It’s not that just a few designers happen to be gay. But gays and lesbians have contributed immensely to fashion for a very long time.”

The 1920s’ garçonne look rejected corsets of days gone by and embraced a lithe boyish silhouette for women, like the ones favored by bisexual actress Marlene Dietrich. Iconic designers—Christian Dior, Cristobal Balenciaga, Pierre Balmain—remained closeted throughout their lives, policed by societal homophobia. Coco Chanel reportedly disdained their ultra-feminine silhouettes—claiming they were fantasies spun out of their desire to be women themselves. Chanel’s own sexuality remains disputed, but the exhibition offers a claim that her androgynous style came from identification with powerful men.

Weaving through history, political upheaval maps key points of gay designers coming out. 1969’s Stonewall Riots mark a deep shift in LGBTQ fashion. According to the exhibition’s explanation of Stonewall:

“Pre-Stonewall, the most visible gay male styles had been elite, camp or drag. Post-Stonewall, the “Clone” emerged to symbolize modern, macho gay style. Lesbian style also evolved, as traditional butch-femme dress codes were increasingly replaced by an androgynous, ‘anti-fashion’ style.”

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(An important exception to this trend is the exhibit’s fabulously loud, red sequined fur getup worn by the famously flamboyant Liberace in 1977.)

The AIDS crisis acts as a political climax at the center of the exhibit. Clothing by designers who died of AIDS in the 1980s, like Perry Ellis, Halston, and Bill Robinson are featured, with a backdrop of AIDS activism t-shirts to accompany them. Jean-Paul Gaultier’s “cone bra” dress and Gianni Versace’s BDSM—inspired “bondage” collection represents the tangible shift from the closet to the catwalk. As the show moves into a direction of contemporary, beloved, and openly gay designers who embrace femininity, including the late Alexander McQueen, the last few pieces are wedding outfits worn by couples married after the repeal of DOMA. Two wedding dresses, two suits, and two outfits donned by a pair of “dandy Rasputins, who would never be caught dead wearing gowns.”

Taken as a whole, it is impressive that Steele and her collaborators collected so many pieces in just two years. However, the lack of representation by designers of color speaks to the historic lack of representation and rights for people of color. The five designers of color (out of 100 ensembles) included Stephen Burrows, Patrick Kelly, Willie Smith, a gorgeous paper dress for the AIDS benefit Love Ball by Andre Walker, and a silk charmeuse gown by Narciso Rodriquez seemed to be the extent of representation at the Queer History of Fashion exhibit. “Stephen Burrows and Narciso Rodriguez were happy to participate. We already had their clothes, so we did not have to borrow from them. Sadly, Willie Smith and Patrick Kelly died of AIDS, but we have wonderful examples of their designs as well in the museum’s collection of 50,000 garments and accessories.”

Some interesting angles might include the iconic style of Josephine Baker, disco/soul singer Sylvester, and Mexican painter Frida Kahlo--all legendary queer fashion icons in history. Also missing are the famed Harlem drag balls in the 1980s, as documented in the film Paris is Burning, which showed the powerful intersections of race, class, gender, and sexuality in the U.S. Contextually, the gay rights movement fought alongside the civil rights and feminist movements, and there were designers, like Yves Saint Laurent, who challenged the whiteness of the fashion world. One of his muses was black supermodel Mounia. Just as gay subculture has continually influenced high fashion, Saint Laurent’s breaking the barrier of women of color on his runways is an important influence on queer fashion history that should be included.

Steele says, “I hope the exhibition will get people thinking about how much LGBTQ people have contributed to fashion, both individually, as designers, trendsetters... but also politically, collectively, with the rise of styles associated with gay culture. Fashion has been a site of gay cultural production for 300 years. It’s long overdue that somebody’s looked at all the contributions gay people have made to fashion.”

An eponymous book of essays by fashion historians will accompany the exhibit, followed by a two-day symposium in November. I hope that this will be a chance to explore the all-too-often uncharted contributions of designers of color from this narrative of “Queer History”— a nuanced counter-narrative is long overdue. Especially when we have started a whole new conversation.