Broad Recognition


From Closet to Catwalk: Queering Fashion History

On Wednesday November 13th, Valerie Steele, director and curator of the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology, spoke at Yale about the interplay between queer culture and fashion. That interplay is explored further in her exhibit currently showing at FIT, A Queer History of Fashion. After two years of research, Steele and Fred Dennis, senior curator of costume at FIT, curated a side of fashion history oft neglected, but ever critical in its nuanced reflection on the symbiosis of fashion and queer history.

Although the second part of the exhibit’s title is From the Closet to the Catwalk, Steele establishes the non-linear fluidity of historical influences between the queer community, individuals, and fashion. Through a mode of self-expression as exterior as clothing, the nuances of oppression and liberation of queer individuals and communities alike are thrown into tangible, stark relief. From the colorful pomp of crossdressing in 18th century England to T-shirt design for AIDs activism, A Queer History of Fashion encompasses pieces not only selected for their individual stories, but for their contribution to a larger LGBTQ history.

“Menswear” and “womenswear” continue to serve as the binary framework for high fashion, despite the fact that the dichotomy of such terms has in some ways been subverted since the turn of the 20th century. An aesthetic like the ’20s garçonne – short hair paired with a silhouette that de-emphasizes hips and breasts – raises questions of the role of gender fluidity in mainstream and underground aesthetics. The garçonne was a popular look amongst the fashion set, but was also associated more specifically with the underground lesbian community in Paris., Patriarchal notions of “androgynous woman,” as evoked by the garçonne, seem to inform a more open acceptance of queerness in womenswear. The ways in which “womenswear” has been more overtly fluid in its aesthetic inspiration, and the ways in which “menswear,” in the context of oppressive patriarchal standards of masculinity, has not, is a contrast that is primarily explored in the exhibit through the work of queer male designers.

Amidst the convolutions of repressive gender binary, the concreteness of the pieces of clothing on display emphasize a lucid intertwinement between the aesthetics of the piece itself, the designer’s influences, the designer’s sexuality, and the participation of the designer’s fashion milieu in the story of that piece. The tailored “dandyism” of Marlene Dietrich, who in the ’30s was coined “the best dressed man in Hollywood,” directly inspired Yves Saint Laurent, thirty years later, to create the Le Smoking suit. Like many other gay male designers, Saint Laurent kept knowledge of his sexuality to his particular fashion sphere for most of his life. In the ’30s, Christian Dior, who had both affairs and long-term queer relationships over the course of his career, was the target of homophobic comments by Chanel, whose competition had shifted within the decade from female to gay male designers.

While the fashion sphere was no guarantee of privacy, it fostered a coding system, through semiotics of clothing, in which gay men could communicate with each other without the knowledge of heterosexuals. On one of her presentation slides, Steele points out the “red ties and suede shoes” in an illustration of three dandys, that may suggest such codes.  Heterosexual fascination with the language of queer style can be seen, in a contemporary sense, through the emergence in the ’80s and ’90s of the “metrosexual,” a man who partakes in the kind of active interest in style associated with queerness. With burgeoning acceptance of “metrosexuality” and the general fascination with queer style, designers such as Calvin Klein incorporated homoerotic imagery into both men and womenswear advertisement campaigns. Notably, the fact that “metrosexual” usually refers to a man is revealing, still, of the heteronormative need to distinguish between a straight man who puts time into his appearance, and a gay man who does the same, whether or not to foremost express his sexuality. In the world of women’s fashion, too, Steele notes the dearth of direct reference to queer style influences, specifically in the case of Versace’s 1992 Bondage collection. With its play on metal and leather through bodices, bomber jackets, and tassels, the collection was consistently characterized by mainstream fashion press as “dominatrix and light bondage [influenced],” with little to no mention of butch style influence.

Gay vernacular style, in contrast to the high fashion pieces that on display in A Queer History of Fashion, became more overtly intertwined with queer politics during the latter half of the century. After the 1969 Stonewall Riots, more flamboyant looks emerged, a turning point in queer self-expression at the level of individual street style. In the decades that followed the riots, queer self-expression experienced an additional shift because of the AIDs crisis; because the disease was associated with gay men, many such designers faced discrimination by fashion company backers. Fashion became a more public platform for queer politics through shirts with political slogans, and not just through the more oblique designs of openly gay heads of fashion houses.

Steele notes that “a large weakness” of A Queer History of Fashion is its failure to account for queer minority subcultures. On the curatorial level, Steele did not want to out closeted minority designers (or any closeted designer, for that matter). When approached with the question of post-colonial and colonial influences on sartorial design, Steele indicated curatorial limitations in obtaining the pieces that would tell a story with significant depth and nuance. She sees A Queer History of Fashion as “the first of a number of shows” that will focus on the nuances of such narratives in queer history and the way in which they intertwine, not only with each other, but also with the public medium of clothing.

April Wen is a first-year in Yale College. She is a contributing writer for Broad Recognition.

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