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Looking Back at Fashion's Queer History

Paul Hiebert talks with the Valerie Steele, co-curator of A Queer History of Fashion, about the new exhibit.
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Installation view of A Queer History of Fashion: From the Closet to the Catwalk. (PHOTO: THE MUSEUM AT FIT, NEW YORK.)

Installation view of A Queer History of Fashion: From the Closet to the Catwalk. (PHOTO: THE MUSEUM AT FIT, NEW YORK.)

If you happen to enter The Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York City between now and January 4, 2014, you'll see a first-of-its-kind exhibit dedicated to a subject that most assume to be true yet few talk about: the substantial influence gay, bisexual, and transgender men and women have had on the history of how we dress. A Queer History of Fashion: From the Closet to the Catwalk, which opened in September, features around 100 ensembles, dating from the 18th century up to the recent designs of Jean Paul Gaultier and Gianni Versace.

Earlier this month, the institute hosted a symposium on the topic that included segments with director and chief curator of The Museum at FIT, Valerie Steele; ambassador-at-large of Barneys New York, Simon Doonan; senior vice president and creative director of MAC Cosmetics, James Gager; author Fran Lebowitz; and other writers, academics, and people involved in the industry. Afterward, we chatted with Steele, who co-curated A Queer History of Fashion with Fred Dennis, to learn more about how individuals who identify as LGBTQ have shaped the modern concept of clothing.

Your exhibit begins in the early 18th century. Could you have gone back further in history?
I don't think so, because though there has been same-sex love throughout world history, students of sexuality believe there was a significant change in the early 18th century in Northern Europe that marked the beginning of what we would think of modern heterosexuality and homosexuality. Prior to that, it was a very different sexual regime.

Although there were sodomite subcultures during the Renaissance in Florence, for example, there were no separate gay communities. So a person who slept with other males, like Leonardo da Vinci, would have worn exactly the same clothes as any other man of his age and class. In 18th-century London, however, you start to find gays using clothing as a way of identifying themselves.

"Since the gay community was at the heart of this culture that respected and understood the nuance of fashion, when many of them died a more coarse and less-sophisticated awareness of fashion nuances inevitably came into being."

What was happening in London that brought about this shift?
Well, it was part of a bigger sex and gender revolution, where prior to that, elite men could have sex with both younger men and women and it didn't make any difference. Afterward, a split began to occur where for most people you were either homosexual or heterosexual. And so, what you see in the 18th century is some gay men who were interested in cross-dressing. Some developed a fashion for themselves, which was like an exaggeration of aristocratic male dress. Some gay men become the precursor of gay fashion designers who make clothes for women.

During your lecture at the symposium, you mentioned that a red tie was a signifier of homosexuality between the 1920s and 1950s. Do you have other examples of this?
Sure, there are lots. In the 18th century in Paris, it was said that homosexuals wore shoelaces instead of shoe buckles.

Why does it seem that gay people are drawn to fashion? Why not, say, physics or biology?
Well, there are gay surgeons and gay athletes, but I think probably the most important reason why there are so many gay people in fashion is because gay people in general have been interested in using fashion and style as a way of both fitting in and communicating with other LGBTQ people. So, in a way, it's because of the oppression and enforced secrecy in homophobic societies that gays and lesbians have had to learn how to read clothing details more carefully.

I also think the idea was that if you're different maybe you're artistic. So, again, it's not just fashion and design. People used to say, "Oh, he's musical, or he's artistic" as code words for "gay."

Is there a sense that some people channeled this oppression and anger into creation?
Yes, and I think specifically into creating an alternative world—someplace where you're not the person being bullied in school, but you're the creator of a beautiful world.

Is there a gay aesthetic when it comes to fashion?
People have different ideas about that. My co-curator, Fred Dennis, is much more comfortable saying, “Yes, there is a gay sensibility,” but I myself think there are multiple gay aesthetics, which are appreciated by a large section of the LGBTQ community. Creators have very different aesthetics—some are very transgressive, while others are highly idealizing.

During the symposium, Fran Lebowitz suggested that most male fashion designers were gay. If true, doesn't that mean that queer fashion history is fashion history?
One of the main reasons we called the show A Queer History of Fashion is precisely because it's an alternative history that calls attention to the tremendous long-term impact that gays and lesbians and bisexuals and transgender people have had on fashion. Although there's no way to quantify it because we don't know who had what sexual identity for most of the periods, there have been gay people in fashion for a very long time, and some have been very important leading figures. It's not just Marc Jacobs.

How did gay fashion change after Stonewall?
Prior to Stonewall, most people tried to conceal their sexual identity to avoid being fired or arrested or blackmailed. Afterward, many people were much more willing to be openly identifiable as gay or lesbian. In terms of specific clothes, the dominant pre-Stonewall look for gay men and lesbians was a style that had an upper-class male look. After Stonewall, an important, powerful style was a working-class male look. So it kind of went from tuxedos to blue jeans and wife beaters.

It was part of a much wider ideological greening of America and egalitarian youth culture. Everyone was wearing blue jeans: it was young, it was unisex, it was everything all at once. Plus, it was a piece of clothing traditionally worn by working class men that showed off the body, so it was a valorization of what previous generations would have referred to as "trade." It would also say, "I have this great body and I'm really strong and muscular and masculine. Just because I'm gay doesn't mean I'm not masculine."

At another point during the symposium, Lebowitz suggested, as she has elsewhere, that the AIDS epidemic took the lives of not only great artists and designers, but also key members of a critical audience. Can you explain how this loss affected the fashion world?
Yes, I thought that was a very astute comment, because in order to have a flourishing art world or fashion world, you need to have knowledgeable connoisseurs and observers and performers, not just creators. So reasons why cities like Paris and New York have been fashion centers is because they contained lots of people who were knowledgeable about fashion. Since the gay community was at the heart of this culture that respected and understood the nuance of fashion, when many of them died a more coarse and less-sophisticated awareness of fashion nuances inevitably came into being.

In America, homosexuality seems to be gaining more legitimacy every day. How will this growing acceptance affect the future of fashion?
People have been talking about this for quite a while, but the acceptance is still short-lived and was violently retracted during the AIDS crisis when there was a huge outburst of homophobia and fear and rage. Very young people with no sense of history might think, "Oh, I'm accepted because I was in New York and it's perfectly OK," but I think even if you don't look at Russia, Uganda, Egypt, Iran, and other places where gay people are persecuted, you can still see gay people being shot and beaten up when they come out of the bar right here. There are people who are in comas and murdered because of homophobes in New York City. It's no joke when you see kids who have been totally rejected by their families and thrown out because they were gay. Even if it's a tolerated difference, it can't be comfortable to be a little kid and realize that you seem to be different from other people.

Is there anything that didn't make it into the exhibit that you think people should know about?
Well, we just intended ours to be the first show. I will be super happy to see a lot more shows with different angles, such as the diversity of contemporary gay styles. Having to fit in 300 years meant there wasn't much space to give to now, so an obvious next show would be for someone to look at the world of queer fashion today, and look more widely and cross-culturally at what younger kids are wearing.