After a Queer Fashion

Abigail Joseph

The exhibit currently on view at the Museum at FIT, “A Queer History of Fashion: From the Closet to the Catwalk,” ends on a note of progressive triumphalism: the final installation is a triptych of gay wedding attire from the past several years. We see, to the right, a pair of entirely conventional white wedding dresses, full-skirted and strapless; to the left, conservative dark and lighter blue suits. In the middle, substantially queerer, are the “dandy Rasputin” (their words) bridal ensembles worn by the artists Hannah Barrett and Laurel Sparks in 2012: vests, pinstriped trousers, top hats, canes.

This finale is as moving as it is joyous, capping a swift-moving tour through three centuries of gay and lesbian fashion history that is, for all of the color and sumptuousness and wit of many of the objects on display, inevitably shot through with threads of suffering, alienation, loss, and death. But there’s another tension at play between the wedding wear installation and what precedes it. Marriage Equality is, for the most part, a movement that drives toward normalization, as the white dresses and dark suits visually demonstrate: it asserts that gay and lesbian love is “just like” that of heterosexuals, and it seeks full rights and recognition in the public spheres of politics and the family.

Fashion, however, when considered as something that exceeds mere ways of dressing, is rarely about normalization. Instead, it strives to be exceptional, provocative, and glamorously untethered from the functional economies of domesticity. Moreover, the story of gay fashion, especially of gay men’s work in fashion, relies on conceptions of a “gay sensibility” that necessarily echo the kind of long-standing stereotypes avidly disavowed by many proponents of marriage and other forms of assimilation. To exhibit queer fashion, then, is to draw a line, tangled but not broken, between a painful past and a progressive present, and to insist that, whether or not it has a future, gay investment in fashion, though often deemed superficial and trivial, has a history worth excavating and preserving.


Cristóbal Balenciaga, <i>Evening Dress</i> (France, 1938). Silk velvet. The Museum at FIT, 91.255.2. Gift of Tina Chow


When I began researching the history of gay men’s involvement in fashion six years ago for my dissertation project, I was astonished by the lack of material on the subject. There was work on gay men’s style in the 20th century, and on the fashions sported by homosexual (or sexually suspect) men in 18th- and 19th-century urban subcultures, and of course on drag, but essentially nothing on the undeniably major presence of gay men as designers and connoisseurs of fashion, especially women’s fashion. As the Museum at FIT’s director, Valerie Steele, notes in her introductory essay to the exhibit catalogue, “although many designers are openly gay, the subject of fashion and homosexuality remains an open secret. We know it, but we don’t name it—except on the internet where gossip flourishes.” 

Homosexuality, in the fashion world as in others, has often remained unspoken, even as the aesthetic energies often associated with it—energies of decorative extravagance, corporeal reimagination, gender transgression—have produced both iconic looks and widespread trends. We have books about the psychic, social, and aesthetic intimacies between homosexuality and opera, musical theater, dance, film, visual art, and literature. Fashion, however, remained largely outside the scholarly conversations of queer studies, even as fashion studies became a burgeoning field. Might this have been due to concerns that to discuss the prominence of gay men in fashion would uphold an old, damaging stereotype?

The stereotype has indeed been damaging, but behind it lies a rich cultural history that reaches back at least two centuries. That history helped found modern gay identities and the modern fashion system—their languages, their social dynamics, their routes of transmission, their material proclivities and fascinations. So it is thrilling to see, finally, serious attention being paid to “high fashion as a site of gay cultural production,” as Steele puts it in her essay, in the form of the FIT exhibit, curated by Steele and Fred Dennis, and an accompanying essay collection, published by Yale University Press.

The story the exhibit tells goes far beyond that of the rise and influence of gay men as fashion designers (the show acknowledges lesbian designers and also acknowledges that they are regrettably underrepresented in the fashion world). Its history begins with the cross-dressing “mollies” and foppish “macaronis” of 18th-century London whose dress codes Peter McNeil discusses in his catalogue essay. The exhibit then traverses the dandy and Aesthetic styles of the late 19th century, a display overseen, fittingly, by a large reproduction of one of Napoleon Sarony’s iconic photographs of Oscar Wilde. Next we have the androgynous chic of the 1920s garçonne and of celebrities like Marlene Dietrich and Noël Coward; glamorous midcentury couture; and street style pre- and post-Stonewall. The exhibit then moves on to the avant-garde costumes of queer performers like Klaus Nomi and the lavish and transgressive fin de siècle productions of provocateurs like Jean Paul Gaultier, Thierry Mugler, Gianni Versace, and Alexander McQueen. A solemn, moving, necessary installation memorializes the gay designers lost to AIDS; behind their creations, a wall of T-shirts from the ’80s and ’90s demonstrates both the political weight and radical wit of queer activism.

This queer history of fashion, then, is a history both of what queer people have worn and of how they have—as designers, stylists, critics, and cultural icons—influenced what others have worn. Often, of course, these axes intersect: for instance, in the subcultural fetish wear whose idioms were appropriated and distributed as elite trends by designers like Gianni Versace. Or, in a different sense, in the Yves Saint Laurent velvet-and-wool suits worn by the activist Larry Kramer and the cultural critic Richard Martin—suits, outwardly stylish, not especially radical, but doubly queered, first by their production and reception, and then by the energy of transmission between gay designer and gay wearer.


Charles James, <i>Evening Dress</i> (USA, ca. 1940). Silk crepe. The Museum at FIT, 71.265.13. Gift of Doris Duke


Revealing the routes of gay expression and relationality opened or sutured by fashion is one of the exhibit’s great achievements. Woven throughout its displays is a strongly biographical thread. Labels inform us not only who made and often who wore each outfit, but also of the status of their makers’ homosexuality: secret, open, or open secret; gossiped about, hidden behind a heterosexual marriage, or posthumously revealed. As Steele notes in her essay, quoting film historian William Mann, “the ‘burden of proof’ for homosexuality has traditionally been held far higher than that for heterosexuality.” So to voice the homosexuality of major figures like Christian Dior and Cristóbal Balenciaga, to refuse to couch it in qualifications or disavowals of certainty or relevance, is invaluable. It fills in fashion history’s gaps of silence and asserts the place of these fashion designers in the larger canon of 20th-century gay artists. It is also invaluable for reviving the kind of biography- and identity-based critical moves that belong to an older moment of gay studies, one largely abandoned in favor of queer theory’s emphasis on more diffuse strains of resistance to norms of gender and sexuality.

But biography can only be a part of the question: fashion’s relation to homosexuality also needs to be traced into the more elusive conceptual territory of eroticism, texture, and temporality. The role of gay men as innovators in women’s fashion has inspired a good deal of bitter critique, from satirical attacks in the mid-Victorian press on Charles Worth, the first modern couturier, as a pretentious and bullying “dictator”; to Coco Chanel’s vicious characterization of rival designers like Dior as “queens” who “dream of being women so they make real women look like transvestites”; to contemporary speculations that the prevalence of ultra-thin models is due to gay designers’ distaste for the female body. The relationship between gay designers and their clients and fans has been shaped by complex strains of identification, and by a kind of intensely intimate but nonsexual adoration conducted not through heterosexuality but around practices and materials often opposed or invisible to it. High fashion is often said to be “unsexy,” which, when true, may be one of its most important features. But even the most conventionally “sexy” or feminine of high fashion garments are crafted with a precise attention to subtleties of fabric, draping, embellishment, and silhouette that far exceeds the imperatives of hetero-eroticism. To really understand the queer history of fashion, we would need to consider the queerness of certain visual and material forms, certain fabrics and patterns, out of whose interactive encounters with a designer’s vision and a client’s body “style” itself emerges.

In the Museum’s upstairs galleries was another exhibition, called “RetroSpective” (on view May 22–November 16, 2013), which I walked through before my second viewing of “Queer History.” Curated by Jennifer Farley, the exhibit traces the practice of historical reference in 20th-century fashion, arguing that it is “not just a contemporary phenomenon” but “deeply rooted in fashion history. … [D]rawing on both the distant and recent past is a fundamental part of the design process with its own unique history.” Indeed, the history of fashion’s historicism is unique, and, as installed in these galleries, quite mesmerizing. It is also profoundly queer; though sexuality is never explicitly raised in “RetroSpective,” what that show reveals about the queerness of fashion deepens, I think, the admirably but sometimes frustratingly literal perspective of Steele and Dennis’s exhibit.

Beginning with references to the costumes of distant historical periods (Elizabeth Taylor’s Cleopatra sandals, a 1966 Yves Saint Laurent evening dress in deep-purple silk embellished with Byzantine jeweled neck and cuffs), “RetroSpective” proceeds through citations of the panniers and frock coats of the 18th century, the various sleeve and skirt silhouettes of the Victorian period, and continues, decade by decade, to the distinctive trends of the 1920s through ’60s, and, finally, grunge, punk, and other fashion movements of the later decades of the last century.


Balmain, <i>Evening Dress</i> (France, ca. 1951). Light blue taffeta, mauve velvet, silver buttons. The Museum at FIT, 84.125.3. Gift of Mrs. F. Leval


The organizational principle here is chronological, but its version of chronology is a strange one, because objects are arranged by the era being cited, rather than by their era of origin. The result is a timeline that feels twisty, convoluted, unexpected; it folds in on itself and fans outward in odd directions—a queer kind of temporality. Historical time becomes multilayered: we see the 1910s reviving the Empire style of the early 19th century, which itself drew on idealized visions of ancient Greek dress. Fashion’s queer time makes disorderly leaps: the full skirts of the 1950s, because they cited the hoop skirts of the 1850s and ’60s, show up before the elegant evening gowns of the 1930s and ’40s, which revive the poufs and bustles of the 1870s and ’80s—which were themselves concocted as returns to the panniers of the 18th century. The short mod dresses of the mid-1960s reach both back toward the flapper looks of the 1920s, which they cited, and forwards, with a fittingly futuristic energy, to the minimalist shifts of the 1990s and 2000s, which in turn quoted them.

The overlap between the designers featured in the two exhibits is substantial: most of the major players of “RetroSpective”—Yves Saint Laurent, Pierre Balmain, Norman Norell, Charles James, Adrian, Halston, Bill Blass—figure prominently in “Queer History of Fashion” as well. But the words “queer” and “gay” appear nowhere in the exhibition copy for “RetroSpective.” The sexual orientations of designers is not the matter at hand: rather, it is their historical orientations to which our attention is drawn. Downstairs, Halston, who died of AIDS in 1990, is named as a celebrity designer whose homosexuality, despite his escapades at Studio 54, came as a surprise to many when he was “officially outed in Andy Warhol’s posthumously published diaries.” Upstairs, we see that the clingy jersey dresses for which Halston was famous, although they are often “equated with modernity” and the louche nightclub vibes of the 1970s, also reprised the sinuous elegance of the bias-cut gowns of the 1930s—which themselves were seeking to recover the fluidity of ancient Greek drapery and, after the androgynous swing of the ’20s, the femininity of the 19th century’s long skirts and marked waists.


Farquharson & Wheelock, <i>Evening Dress</i> (USA, 1938). Gold lamé. The Museum at FIT, 82.151.113. Gift of Mrs. Jefferson Patterson; Halston, <i>Halter Dress</i> (USA, 1972–73). Copper silk jersey. The Museum at FIT, 76.118.3. Gift of Lauren Bacall


In “Queer History,” the American designer Norman Norell (1900–1972) is marshaled as evidence for the “open secret” quality of the midcentury fashion world: “Everybody knew [that he was gay], but Norman would never admit it,” according to illustrator Hilary Knight, whose interview with Steele seemed to have provided the exhibition with some of its more gossipy insights. Upstairs, though, we learn much more: that “Norell was known to begin research for a collection by combing through images of past fashions in magazines,” and, according to fashion writer Bernadine Morris, Norell tended “to go further than most designers” in “playing the nostalgia game.” Visual evidence for his exuberant, exacting citationality comes in the form, here, of a sequined “Mermaid dress” adorned with an ancient Egyptian-style collar (1971); a short black wool crepe evening dress (a gift of Lauren Bacall), dated 1965 but so evocative of the 1920s that journalist Marylin Bender quipped, “Is it Norell … or Vintage Chanel?”; and, from 1962, the “Josephine dress,” a red crepe interpretation of the early 19th-century Empire silhouette so literal it could serve as a movie costume. Unsurprisingly, Norell began his career as a costume designer at Paramount.

Norell is one of the countless designers whose gayness, though it must have deeply influenced both his work and his relationships with the celebrities and socialites whom he dressed, is as unspoken in his archive as it was in his lifetime; and the forthright documentation that Steele and Dennis’s exhibit provides is, for fashion history and gay history alike, a tremendously important thing. But a designer’s homosexuality, I think, begins to acquire a kind of deeper significance where it intersects with his aesthetics: his formal innovations, his decorative signatures, his citational repertoire. It’s in those intersections—in a future exhibit, say, that would combine the blunt revelations of “Queer History” with the more subtle ones of “RetroSpective”—that we can begin to think about how dissident erotic desires have been linked to the ability of some to view with transformative passion the body and its most intimate material surroundings.

It almost seems, then, as though “RetroSpective” tells us more about the gay imagination than “Queer History” does. The former show’s focus on one aspect of fashion’s ingenuity reveals both the capacious range and the remarkable consistency of fashion’s play, its ability to define the visual landscape of the eternally moving present through perpetual leaps back toward the aesthetics of the past. Revivifying relics, fashion, in its eccentric attachments to moments and shapes, troubles—queers, as vividly as any cultural form that we have—any conception of history, gay or otherwise, as linear and absolute in its progress.