Fashion and homosexuality

Throughout the twentieth century, clothing has been used by lesbians and gay men as a means of expressing self-identity and of signaling to one another.

Male Cross-Dressing

Even before the twentieth century, transvestism and cross-dressing among men were associated with the act of sodomy. By the eighteenth century, many cities in Europe had developed small but secret homosexual subcultures. London’s homosexual subculture was based around inns and public houses where “mollies” congregated. Many of the mollies wore women’s clothing as both a form of self-identification and as a means of attracting sexual partners. They wore “gowns, petticoats, head-cloths, fine laced shoes, furbelowed scarves, and masks; [and] some had riding hoods; some were dressed like milk maids, others like shepherdesses with green hats, waistcoats, and petticoats; and others had their faces patched and painted” (Trumbach, p. 138).

Male homosexuals continued to cross-dress in both public and private spaces throughout the nineteenth century. In the 1920s, the Harlem drag balls offered a safe space for gay men (and lesbians) to cross-dress. Similarly the Arts Balls of the 1950s in London offered an opportunity denied in everyday life. Cross-dressing performers, commonly known as drag queens, used women’s clothes to parody straight society and create a gay humor. One of the greatest American drag performers was Charles Pierce, who began his career in the 1950s, and was best known for his impersonations of film stars such as Bette Davis and Joan Crawford. The tradition has been carried on by gay drag performers such as American performers Divine and RuPaul and British television star Lily Savage.

Una, Lady Troubridge, 1924. The period between the two world wars saw a rise in the visibility of lesbians. This oil-on-canvas portait by artist Romaine Brooks typifies the masculinized lesbian dress of the period. Note the wing collar, monocle, and men's jacket.

Una, Lady Troubridge, 1924. The period between the two world wars saw a rise in the visibility of lesbians. This oil-on-canvas portait by artist Romaine Brooks typifies the masculinized lesbian dress of the period. Note the wing collar, monocle, and men's jacket.

Effeminacy

Overt gay men, who did not want to go so far as to cross-dress, sometimes adopted the most obvious signifiers of female mannerisms and dress: plucked eyebrows, rouge, eye makeup, peroxide blond hair, high-heeled shoes, women’s blouses. In America it was illegal for men (and women) to cross dress unless attending a masquerade. At least three items of clothing had to be appropriate to the gender. Adopting such an appearance was dangerous, for it was risky to be overtly homosexual. In his autobiography, The Naked Civil Servant (1968), Quentin Crisp recalls being stopped a number of times by police because of his effeminate appearance. However, the risks were worthwhile for many. Dressing as a “flaming queen” was a means of entering into the subculture of gay society. Also, by adopting female characteristics and by adhering to strict gendered rules of sexual behavior, queens could attract allegedly “normal,” straight sexual partners. The adoption of effeminate dress codes began to wane with the rise of gay liberation, but has continued to play a role in gay life.

Masculinity and Lesbian Dress

In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the adoption of male dress was a means for many women, including many lesbians, to protest the status of women and the roles assigned them by patriarchal societies. Cross-dressing had been and continued to be utilized by women to allow them to “pass” as men and be accepted. Some, like writer George Sand and painter Rosa Bonheur utilized the methods in order to have their professional work be taken seriously. The period between the two World Wars saw a rise in lesbian visibility. The typical masculinized lesbian dress of the period is typified by the wing collar, monocle, and man’s jacket worn by Lady Una Troubridge (lover of Radclyffe Hall, author of The Well of Loneliness) in her portrait by Romain Brooks. In America, lesbian performers such as Ma Rainey and Gladys Bentley wore men’s top hat and tails to express their identity, while bisexual film stars Greta Garbo and Marlene Dietrich wore masculine clothes both on- and offscreen.

Until the 1970s, the public image of lesbians was very much centered on masculinity. As a means of asserting difference and signaling to other lesbians, many women-loving women adopted certain “masculine” markers, such as a collar and tie or trousers. In America, it was illegal for women to dress completely in men’s clothes, and they were required to wear “three pieces of women’s clothing” (Nestle, p. 100). Public reaction was not sympathetic to “butch” lesbians. American lesbian writer and activist Joan Nestle “walked the streets looking so butch that straight teenagers called [her a] bulldyke” (Nestle, p. 100).

Not all lesbian women felt drawn to the adoption of male clothing, preferring instead more conventional female attire: makeup, high-heeled shoes, and skirts. Many accounts of lesbian bar life note the prevalence of “butch” and “femme” identities and behavior, where butch lesbians were expected to form relationships only with femme lesbians, and lesbians were expected to identify with one role or the other.

Subtle Signifiers

The illegality of homosexuality and the moral disapproval that it attracted forced gay men and lesbians to live virtually invisible lives in the first part of the twentieth century. Up until the gay liberation movement of the late 1960s, the most important criterion of dressing in public, for the mass of gay men and lesbians, was to be able to “pass” as heterosexual. Despite this need, many were aware of the dress codes and items that could be used to signal sexual orientation. These symbols of identity often took the form of a specific type or color of accessory and, like other secret symbols, developed and changed over time. The primary signifier at the time of the Oscar Wilde trials in the 1890s was the green carnation. Indeed, the color green had been associated with the effeminate and sometimes sodomitical macaronis of the 1770s and continued to have gay associations in clothing through the first part of the twentieth century. George Chauncey notes that in 1930s New York City, green suits were the badge of open “pansies.” Other signifiers for gay men included a red necktie (worn in New York City before World War LI) and suede shoes (one of the most international and enduring gay signifiers). Lesbian signifiers included accessories such as ties and cufflinks, short haircuts (particularly the “Eton crop” of the 1920s), and the color violet.

Menswear Revolution

During the “menswear revolution” of the 1960s, the association of fashion and homosexuality began to diminish. With the rise in subcultural fashions and the dissemination of Carnaby Street fashions around the world, it was suddenly acceptable for young men to be interested in fashion, and to spend time and money on clothes and appearance. Carnaby Street fashions were initially sold to a gay “theatrical and artistic” clientele by a former physique photographer by the name of Vince from a shop near Carnaby Street. John Stephen, who was later to be known as the “King of Carnaby Street,” had worked at Vince’s shop and produced the clothes faster, cheaper, and for a younger market. In America, too, a close-fitting “European style.” worn primarily by gay men, was sold from “boutiques” in Greenwich Village, New York, and West Hollywood in Los Angeles.

Gay Men and Masculinity

By the late 1960s, lesbians and gay men throughout the Western world had begun to question their position as second-class citizens and their stereotype as effeminate “queens” or “butch dykes.” Along with the demands for equality and recognition, lesbians and gay men began to address their appearance. There had always been gay men who dressed in a conventionally masculine style, but in the early 1970s, gay men in New York and San Francisco looked to the epitomes of American masculinity—the cowboy, the lumberjack, the construction worker—for inspiration for a new dress style. The clones, as they were known, adopted the most masculine dress signifiers they could find—work boots, tight Levi’s, plaid shirts, short haircuts, and moustaches. Their clothes were chosen to reveal and celebrate the contours of the male body.

Some clones also developed their sexual tastes by experimenting with sadomasochism. Consequently, they sometimes adopted a “leatherman” appearance and lifestyle, which involved a strict codification of dress and a new system of signifiers, most notably colored handkerchiefs in a back pocket, specifying particular sexual interests. The hypermasculine image has continued to be important even after the supposed death of the clone in the late 1980s, when the image became associated with an older generation of pre-AIDS gay men. Gay men have interpreted and demonstrated their masculine looks through the celebration of muscular “gym” bodies and clothing that shows off those bodies, as well as the emergence of other masculine subcultural styles such as the shaven-headed, boots and braces wearing, but not necessarily racist skinhead.

Post-Liberation Lesbian Style

The advent of both the women’s and gay-rights movements led to a questioning of the stereotyped dress choices previously available to lesbians. Trousers had become increasingly acceptable for women from the 1950s, and during the 1960s it became more difficult to identify lesbians on the grounds of trouser-wearing. “Androgyny” became a key word in fashion, and this manifested itself in various ways. Initially, the move was toward a feminine look for men, but the radical lesbian and gay community rejected this in favor of a more masculine look for both men and women.

The rise of radical feminism saw a rejection of fashion-forced femininity. Flat shoes, baggy trousers, un-shaved legs, and faces bare of makeup made a strong statement about not dressing for men. Radical feminist politics during the 1970s took this to an extreme as a new stereotype was born—that of the dungaree-wearing, crew-cut lesbian feminist.

The 1980s and 1990s saw a new diversification in lesbian dress. The breakdown of the old butch and femme divides, the changes instigated in women’s dress by feminism and punk, and the increasing visibility in public life of lesbians opened up the debate about what lesbians could and should wear. One of the most significant developments was the appearance of the lipstick lesbian (also known as glamour or designer dyke). Dress styles signaled a move away from the traditional butch or radical-feminist styles and allowed out gay women to develop a fashionable urban look that combined signifiers of lesbianism or masculinity with fashionable women’s dress. However, critics accused lipstick lesbians of hiding behind a mask of heterosexuality.

The Fashion Industry

The large proportion of gay men who have worked in creative fields of fashion and the theater and service industries, such as catering, has been well documented by historians such as Ross Higgins, whose study highlighted the involvement of gay men at all levels of the fashion industry in Montreal.

Throughout the twentieth century, many of the top couture fashion designs were gay, even though social pressure called for them to keep their sexuality quiet if not secret. Indeed, many of the greatest names in twentieth-century fashion were gay or bisexual, including such figures as Christian Dior, Cristobal Balenciaga, Yves Saint Laurent, Norman Hartnell, Halston, Rudi Gernreich (who was one of the founding members of the first American homophile organization, the Mattachine society), Calvin Klein, and Gianni Versace.

As designers took over from traditional tailors and gentleman’s outfitters in men’s fashion, a new gay influence became evident. Because gay men were often more willing to experiment with new ideas, styles, and fabrics in clothing, designers such as Jean-Paul Gaultier began to look at what was happening at street level and in gay clubs for ideas for their men’s collections. Moreover, gay men bought clothes that were influenced by and styled toward a gay aesthetic, so their taste influenced fashion in both obvious and subtle ways.

The advent of the “new man” (as a media icon) in the 1980s was a result of men’s reaction to major social changes brought about by a second wave of feminism. As a consequence, it became acceptable for straight men to be interested in their appearance, clothes, and grooming products. New magazines aimed at a wider, heterosexual male consumer were published, but even here a gay influence could be perceived. It was not just that gay designers were creating the looks, but gay stylists, hairdressers, and photographers all exerted a fashion influence. For example, stylist Ray Petri (featured in The Face, i-D, and Arena magazines) drew on looks that he saw in gay clubs to create a whole new style known as Buffalo. Buffalo style dressed black and white, gay and straight models in an unlikely mix of elements such as cycling shorts, flight jackets, skirts, hats, and boots.

The early 1990s saw the advent of “lesbian chic” in the fashion world. This manifested itself most visibly in a series of photographs in Vanity Fair in 1993, including a cover that featured lesbian singer k. d. lang cavorting with supermodel Cindy Crawford.

Homosexual men in cowboy clothing. In the 1970s, gay men began to look to traditional icons of masculinity for fashion inspiration, donning rugged clothing that showed off the physique.

Homosexual men in cowboy clothing. In the 1970s, gay men began to look to traditional icons of masculinity for fashion inspiration, donning rugged clothing that showed off the physique.

Today it is perfectly acceptable for straight men to be interested in fashion and to be obvious consumers of clothes, grooming products, and fashion or “lifestyle” magazines. Popular figures, such as soccer player David Beckham, are avid consumers of clothes and even acknowledge their debt to gay men’s influence on fashion. In an age where homosexuality is tolerated and to a great extent accepted in major urban centers, it has become increasingly difficult to distinguish gay and straight men, and lesbians and straight women, on the basis of their dress. Acknowledging this, Elizabeth Wilson poses the following question: “Throughout the queer century we have disguised and revealed our deviant desires in dress, masquerade, disguise. Now that everyone’s caught on in a postmodern world, what do we have to do to invent new [gay and] dyke style?” (Wilson, 177)

BIBLIOGRAPHY

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Blackman, Inge, and Kathryn Perry. “Skirting the Issue: Lesbian Fashion for the 1990s.” Feminist Review 34 (Spring 1990): 67-78.

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Cole, Shaun. Don We Now Our Gay Apparel: Gay Men’s Dress in the Twentieth Century. Oxford: Berg, 2000.

Fischer, Hal. Gay Semiotics. San Francisco: NSF Press, 1977.

Hggins, Ross. “A la Mode: Fashioning Gay Community in Montreal.” In Consuming Fashion: Adorning the Transnational Body. Edited by Anne Bryden and Sandra Nieman Oxford: Berg, 1998.

Levine, Martin P. Gay Macho: The Life and Death of the Homosexual Clone. New York and London: New York University Press, 1998.

Nestle, Joan. A Restricted Country: Essays and Short Stories. London: Sheba, 1988.

Schuyf, Judith. ‘”Trousers with Flies!’: The Clothing and Subculture of Lesbians.” Textile History 24, no. 1 (1993): 61-73.

Trumbach, Randolph. “The Birth of the Queen: Sodomy and the Emergence of Gender Equality in Modern Culture, 1660-1750.” In Hidden From History: Reclaiming the Gay and Lesbian Past. Edited by Martin Baum Duberman, Martha Vicanus, and George Chauncey Jr. London: Penguin, 1991.

Wilson, Elizabeth. “Dyke Style or Lesbians Make an Appearance.” In Stonewall 25: The Making of the Lesbian and Gay Community in Britain. Edited by Emma Healey and Angela Mason. London: Virago, 1994.

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