It might be a strong statement to say that gay male and female designers have been a major influence on the fashion industry throughout the years, starting as early as the eighteenth century, when gay community hasn’t even been out of the ‘closet’yet, females and males were prosecuted for being gay, and when the ‘gay’ word only had one meaning – joyful, playful, cheerful. But it is true.
The gay and lesbians have always been present in the society; it’s just never been publically admitted by them. Hence, it’s not surprising that the gay community members have been always making their – whether silent or open - contributions to the fashion industry with a few members who stand out the most as the pioneers of the gay fashion and gay fashion ‘spokespersons’.
For many years gays and lesbians were hidden from history, including the history of fashion. By acknowledging the historic influence of gay, lesbian, and bisexual designers, and by emphasizing the important role that fashion and style have played within the LGBTQ community, we see how central gay culture has been to the creation of modern fashion. This, in turn, transforms our entire understanding of fashion industry.
Reclaiming the gay and lesbian past involves more then recognizing individual fashion designs that happened to be gay. It’s also necessary to explore the complex historical links between sexuality, society, and culture. The research shows that fashion has been always significant site of gay culture production for more than 300 years.
The current exhibition at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York "A Queer History of Fashion: From the Closet to the Catwalk" explores the LGBTQ community contribution to fashion from the 18th-century England to the present-day America. It is the first museum exhibition to explore in depth the significant contributions to fashion made by LGBTQ individuals over the past 300 years. “This is about honoring the gay and lesbian designers of the past and present,” says exhibition co-curator Fred Dennis.
From Christian Dior to Yves Saint Laurent to Alexander McQueen, the importance of gay men as fashion designers is undeniable in the twentieth century. But scholars have demonstrates that, as early as the eighteenth century, men who loved other men were pioneers in challenging sex and gender roles. Drawing on this research, the exhibition begins with the eighteenth-century, when cross-dressing “mollies,” foppish “macaronis,” and “men milliners” created controversy.
The word queer, for example – was formerly pejorative, but only recently was adopted within lesbian-gay-bisexual-transgender (LGBT) community and scholars.
Mollies & Oscar Wilde
Molly movement was one of the earliest gay communities, originated in London, which is characterized by the cross-dressed men at the clubs in London, who were prohibited and executed for participating in this subculture. The “macaroni suit” was one of the first men suits that was more feminine than masculine and became popular among gay men in the 18th Century. It then later started to be associated with gay men.
Long before Oscar Wilde became an icon of queer sexuality and style, a “Fraternity of Pretty Gentlemen” united by ‘mutual love’ influenced fashion. In 1920s – the gay fashion became more visible in the society. Oscar Wilde was a key figure in both the history of homosexuality and the history of style. Known for his influence on Aesthetic dress, Wilde was also identified with a dandyism of the senses, celebrating the ‘dangerous and delightful distinction of being different from others.” The history of oppression and consequent secrecy contributed to the development of a queer perspective on fashion, emphasizing both “otherness” and aestheticism.
Garçonne, Tuxedo & Dietrich
After the Molly gay men style came the Garçonne look (from French: boy) - the look that’s been openly adopted by gay women.
Lesbian elegance also influenced fashion, as menswear looks became an important stylistic signifier by the late 19th century. This particular dress style has originated in Paris and Coco Chanel was one of the pioneers of this style for women. It was rumored that Chanel was bisexual, but it was never proven. However, her influence on the gay women fashion has been tremendous and she has been ‘worshipped’ by the gay women around the world. This is when the bowties, pants, jackets and three-style women suits have started to become very popular among gay women.
Le Monocle and Fetiche nightclubs on Monmartre, Paris are mentioned by the historians as the two places known as the places where one could see a lot of Garçonne ensembles of boyish, sporty fashions that were popular among both men and women. The term “Garçonne” (boyish) is derived from Victor Margueritte’s novel “La Garçonne” (1922) (English: The Bachelor Girl). However, mostly, this style was associated with lesbians. This dress style has even influenced the hairstyles of the gay women, women’s short hairstyle started to be called ‘a la garçonne’. The garçonne look of the 1920s brought lesbian style into high fashion.
And there was one particular superstar to blame – the bisexual actress Marlene Dietrich, who was notorious for transgressive cross-dressing, has not only influenced millions of women around the world during the times, but whose personal style has been still influencing many of today’s style icons and fashionistas. As a matter of fact, Dietrich was once described as “the best dressed man in Hollywood”.
Many of us have been watching old Hollywood films and not even thinking about the fact that those particular actors and/or their characters were making history. And by history – I mean the fact that they were breaking the rules of what was conventional for the men and women to wear in the films back in the days, and not only in films – some particular actors, directors and other members of the art community were making a fashion statement in real life.
Marlene Dietrich has been one of the very first women who introduced men’s trousers into the daily wardrobe of a woman. She refused to ‘obey’ by the laws of the Hollywood. Her, Catherine Herburn and Greta Garbo were the ones who favored and preferred trousers to the skirts and dresses. Dietrich, as a matter of fact, has been known to have ‘sex with no gender’, as the historians put it. These women were setting a new (and probably undesired) trend.
Dietrich’s tuxedo choice in the film “Morocco” has caused such a stir in the art community that it sent a shock waive among all the conventional members of the art and Hollywood community. Before Dietrich, women of such Hollywood statue were mostly pictured in dresses, gowns and skirts on a big screen. Dietrich was often ‘advertised’ as the star of the women all women love to see.
The “Morocco” tuxedo was so huge that it even inspired Yves Saint Lauren’s (YSL) tuxedo suit in 1970s, which is now as much-talked about as the Dietrich’s tuxedo. Later YSL designed his “Le Smoking” collection (2002). YSL never denied his sexuality. He once said: “My sexuality has been very important to my creativity”. And this, by far, statement is true to many gay fashion designers, especially Versace, Dolce & Gabbana, and Jean Paul Gaultier.
"Closeted" & Open Gay Fashion Designers
The fashion designers liked dressing up the gay community. Many of them designed the clothing that celebrated the men and women bodies more than the other, more conventional fashion designers. A French fashion designer Madeleine Vionnet may have been also a bisexual, and according to the historians, she understood the anatomy of a woman very well. She created the notorious body-worshiped gowns that are still very popular with the women. Her clients included many of the Argentine and Cuban women, and she was very good at describing their bodies: her Argentine women had “undulating buttocks like carnivores”. She loved her women clients and designing very tailored clothing to their body shapes.
By the 1930s, gay, lesbian, and bisexual designers played a significant role in fashion, although most were discreet, even “closeted,” because they faced discrimination and even arrest. The sight of women in Christian Dior’s New Look gowns or Cristobal Balenciaga’s Velasquez dresses threw Coco Chanel into a homophobic rage. Franco Zeffirelli recalls her hissing at girls: “Look at them! Fools dressed by queens living out their fantasies.”
The fact is that many fashion designers, if not ‘closeted’, were not very outspoken about their sexual preferences and even though the inner circle of the designers – their friends, families and clients – knew about them being gay, it’s often omitted from the general press, only the speculations were going around. For example:
Christobal Balenciaga, another great fashion designer, was not known as widely gay, but it’s reported that he had a companion for twenty years.
Warhol, Liberace & The Art Community
One can say that it was ‘easier’ to be gay in the artistic community. Artistic professions were relatively tolerant heaven for LGBTQ people. However, still, most of the gay people were ‘closed’ like Dior and Balenciaga. The American couturier Main Rousseau Bocher, also known as Mainbocher (fashion label), for example, was once said about by one of his close friends that “of course, he was gay, but no one ever talked about it.” On the other hand, some designers were open about being gay. Charles James was open about his sexuality, and people who worked with him said that “he was very sexy and talked about sex all the time.”
Andy Warhol was another prominent figure of the art community. Warhol was fascinated by the glamour and fashion worlds. He was very experimental in his choice of fashion. He was very social and predominately socialized in gay, cosmopolitan community. Many fashion designers loved to dress him and he loved to dress up. Some of his notorious outfits are now gracing the pages of the fashion books and exhibited at the museums.
Bunny Rogers, Liberace, and Tommy Nutter also influenced the gay fashion. In 1950s–1970s Liberace, recently portrayed by Michael Douglas in Behind the Candelabra, was the highest-paid entertainer in the world and embraced a lifestyle of flamboyant excess both on and off stage. Even though Liberace publicly denied being gay and sued those who said he was, many people knew he was gay. Liberace died of an AIDS-related illness in 1987.
The Stonewall Riots, Muchos & Castro Clone
In reaction to societal homophobia, many gays and lesbians adopted a style best described as discreet and invisible. By the 1960s, however, a more openly gay look began to influence “mod” menswear styles. Rudi Gernreich, a founding member of the pioneering gay liberation group the Mattachine Society, advocated unisex styles, such as caftans.
In New York City, the Stonewall Riots that took place on June 28, 1969, when police raided the Greenwich Village bar, marked the beginning of a more open movement. This event triggered resistance. Drag queens were among the leading participants in the riots, and the first gay pride parades took placed the next year.
Post Stonewall “Castro Clone” emerged to symbolize modern, macho gay style in the 1980s. Gay vernacular styles changed after Stonewall, becoming increasingly butch. Lesbian style also evolved, moving from the “butch-femme” paradigm toward an androgynous, anti-fashion look, which was, in turn, followed by various diversified styles that often referenced subcultures like punk. Pre-Stonewall the most visible gay male styles had been elite elegance camp or drag.
The LGTBQ community has changed overnight, when the Castro Street Style came to be known as the new gay fashion style. The roots of it go to the Castro Street in San Francisco, which is up until today, is considered to be the gay community hub of America. I happened to having lived in San Francisco, and, personally, I found Castro district of San Francisco is one of the best districts in the city. Like in Chelsea and West Village of New York, Castro district has a very friendly, cozy, but fun, vibe – one can feel the sexual freedom there, and, it’s all thanks to the gay community who fought long for the rights to be open about their sexuality and lifestyle.
That was the time, when some of the most famous, notorious outfits were made by the gay fashion designers, where were worn on the red carpet by some of the major celebrities, like Madonna (the notorious cone-bra bodysuit) and Elizabeth Hurley (the pin dress), and which made quite a buzz. This is when the non-gay celebrities came to openly support their gay friends. In his Castro Style of 1970 inspired collection Jean Paul Gaultier paid playful homage to those times of gay history.
Sailors, Skirts, Leather Sex & Gender Taboos
Jean Paul Gaultier’s sailor ensemble made such a splash among the fashion industry players that’s until this day, it’s still one of the timeless pieces that every self-respected gay and non-gay fashionista wants to have. Jean Paul Gaultier’s skirts for men, deliberately violated sex and gender taboos.
The sailor has been long a homoerotic icon and has been used by Gaultier in his ads for both men and women. “Gaultier was the quintessential icon of gay fashion,” – was once said about the designer. “His style seduced; you don’t feel feminine wearing his “jupe-culottes or skirts, but on the contrary, you feel like a warrior.”
This is when Gianni Versace designed some of his famous outfit ensembles for openly gay men in fashion like Hal Rubenstein, according to whom Versace used to tell him: “You’d wear this sheer shirts on top of each other and leave the second one open, go down the South Beach [Miami gay ‘hub’] and men will be chasing you…” And he was right. He designed some of the most iconic shirts for gay men, like these very bright floral silk shirts or these see-thru sheer shirts. These shirts became ones of the most wanted fashion items within the gay community. Miami LGBTQ community worshipped him.
Openly gay Versace drew the iconography of 1970s gay “leather sex” for his infamous 1992 “bondage” collection. Some women took offense of his S&M clothes. Others regarded it as a positive expression of female sexual power.
Claude Montana and John Bartlett were also in favor of using leather in their designs. Freddie Mercury from Queen was one of the gay people who favored this ‘leather sex’ trend. Azzedine Alaia and Thierry Mugler have been also among the fashion designers who supported the gay community and made their fashion contributions.
The leather elements and full ensembles in the fashion added by the gay fashion designers became an integral part of fashion for both men and women.
Nevertheless, while the new fashion styles have emerged and there was more freedom of expression, one of the most devastating events in the history not only of the gay community, but that influenced the world.
AIDS, Read My Lips & New Era for LGBTQ
AIDS devastated LGBTQ community and triggered a new wave of scrutiny. Since ’98 more than 30 million people died from AIDS.
Groups like ACT UP and Queer Nation were organized to bring awareness in the gay community. Many fashion designers participated in creating T-shirts and other clothing items to help fight AIDS, to use for AIDS group walks, and to bring awareness within the gay community. This is when the words like “fag”, “cock”, “practice safe sex” were used for the first time openly in the community, who braved to wear T-shirts that talked about being gay and proud. The “Read My Lips” shirt is still one of the most iconic shirts of those protests and movements.
Many people in fashion and art communities were affected by AIDS. Perry Ellis, Kevyn Aucoin, Antonio Lopez, Herb Ritts, C. Ruffin, Richey Wilson, Way Bandy, Leigh Bowery, Angel Estrada, Bill Robinson, Halston, Carmlo Pomodoro, Will Smith, and Patrick Kelley – all these members of the fashion industry died from AIDS.
Many non-gay prominent figures in politics, art, education, and fashion industry have been joining the gay support groups, have been lobbying for the gay rights and raising funds to fight AIDS for decades. Sharon Stone is known for her zealous dedication to the amfAR auction, which she organizes every where during the Cannes Film Festival. Bono cofounded ONE organization to raise public awareness and work with political leaders to combat AIDS and preventable diseases. Elizabeth Taylor has been, by far, the most influential and active supporter of the gay community and fighter of AIDS. Her Elizabeth Taylor AIDS Foundation, which she established in 1991, has provided over $12 million in grants throughout the world to find direct care to those living with HIV/AIDS. Even after her death, the organization continues to be very active.
Gay Pride & Gay Marriages -- Now
Towards the end of the 20th Century the anti-gay sensibility became more over in fashion and advertising. Gay pride was gaining fascination among straight consumers, projecting the images of distinction and non-conformity.
Today, one of the fashion trends that became very popular among the fashion designers is to design a wedding outfit for the gay couples. What is a heterosexual wedding? How do you do a gay wedding? A heterosexual wedding has clear sartorial rules, but what should a lesbian couple wear? Both in white? A pant suit? A la YSL Le Smoking suit?
Some women planning same-sex marriages create their own styles. Laurel Sparks and Hannah Barrett said about their wedding, which outfits they picked themselves: “We are dandy Rasputins. We wouldn’t be caught dead in gowns.” You can see the outfits here.
You can purchase the multi-author book A Queer History of Fashion: From the Closet to the Catwalk that offers an in-depth overview of the LBTQ history of fashion, including essays by eminent fashion and gay history scholars, here.
A Queer History of Fashion: From the Closet to the Catwalk is at The Museum at FIT, New York, until 4 January 2014.