Part One: Queer Fashion Series

Photo by  on  Unsplash


Over the past few months, I have been thinking a lot about what queer fashion is and isn’t. Some of the questions that keep surfacing are:

  • How is queer fashion different than fashion in general? Is there a difference at all?

  • Is queer fashion about the clothes, or about the person wearing them?

  • Is there a queer way to dress? or a recognizable queer aesthetic?

  • Do queer designers make inherently queer clothes?

  • Can clothing connect or disconnect queer people with other queer people and society in general? And if so, how? And what are the ramifications?

I want to consider each of these questions individually over the next few weeks in a series of articles, in hopes of engendering further conversation and debate about queer fashion and style.

Part One: Queer Fashion

How is queer fashion different than fashion in general? Is there a difference at all?

Clothing as Fashion

Fashion, by definition, simply denotes the clothing styles and trends accepted by the majority of a culture at any given time. That said, style acceptation and expression can be different among smaller niche groups, whether it’s based on geographical location, age groups or other demographic segments. From a purely marketing perspective, queer fashion simply denotes fashion styles accepted and worn by the LGBTQ community at large. And certainly, within that community are smaller “fashion tribes” that subscribe to certain looks, or approaches to dress. This queer look, in all of its variations, is on display in queer-inclusive spaces such as the annual DapperQ event in Brooklyn. In this regard, queer fashion is a shared group identity and can lead to visibility, thus suggesting a difference from more generalized fashion trends.

Nike sports bra.

Nike sports bra.

Clothing as Utility

If we take “fashion” out of the conversation, and focus more specifically on clothing itself, we are forced to consider the more banal nature of clothes, their utility. Clothes can be used to protect the wearer from extreme weather—hot and cold—as well as augment human performance, such as Tyvek jackets worn by firemen, or compression socks or underwear worn by athletes. The latter examples have made their way into more daily wear, as the category of activewear has grown in popularity.

In terms of clothes that have utility specifically for queer people, there are a variety of products such as binders and packers that are about much more than just style and serve a real purpose in reshaping or augmenting the body in a way that externalizes internal identity. Perhaps less obvious are companies that have completely redesigned styles, such as a traditional men’s dress shirt, for a female body. In short, fashion as a utility can be specific to a queer body.



Clothes with Meaning

As humans have become less peripatetic, and more static (less hunter gather, more farmers and business owners), clothes have also taken on meaning beyond their functionality. This is typically referred to as semiotics. For example, while the fireman’s jacket and helmet are first and foremost about protection, they have come to represent the occupation of fireman, and signal to the community their role in protecting that community. Other analogies include the white coat worn by the doctor, the black robe worn by the judge, and the knickerbockers worn by the baseball player. And in emerging research, these uniforms seem to hold a type of magical power, wherein doctors perform better when donned in a white coat, and policemen feel more invincible in their uniform.

This same concept of clothes being imbued with meaning beyond their functionality, also applies on an individual level. For example a “date outfit” can make us feel sexier, or an “interview look” can make us feel smarter.

Examples of giving clothes meaning beyond their utility abound in religious clothing, from the Jewish yarmulke, the Catholic priest’s collar, the Muslim hijab and the Mormon undergarment. These garments have expanded from the purely functional to represent faith, respect and even a protection from the outside world. Specifically, typical Muslim dress is also standard dress for much of the Middle Eastern region, because the robes protect the wearer from the sun, wind and sand, a reality of that part of the world. However, these utilitarian robes have now been codified as religious and imbued with deep, spiritual meaning.

What’s more, most religious groups also enforce dress codes (often very gendered), that connect directly to the values and teachings espoused by the community. For example, in Mormon culture, the youth are given a manual “For the Strength of Youth” that lists rules of dress, meant to protect them from the evils of the world. Much of the rules are focused on girls, including the amount of earrings that are appropriate, the type of bathing suit that can be worn (no two-pieces), and the dictate to cover up shoulders and cleavage.  

The  Silence=Death Project , most known for their iconic political poster, was the work of a six-person collective in New York City: Avram Finkelstein, Brian Howard, Oliver Johnston, Charles Kreloff, Chris Lione, and Jorge Soccarás.  Link.

The Silence=Death Project, most known for their iconic political poster, was the work of a six-person collective in New York City: Avram Finkelstein, Brian Howard, Oliver Johnston, Charles Kreloff, Chris Lione, and Jorge Soccarás. Link.

In terms of queer fashion, certain style haves emerged that have meaning beyond their functionality, or trends in general. Perhaps the most infamous is the pink triangle. Originally used by Nazis to identify queer people for the death camps, the pink triangle has now been adopted by queer people to represent queer identity and express that, “silence=death.” Additionally, the color pink has continued to be associated with gay culture, as well as lavender. After all, the color purple is the merging of blue and pink (typically associated with male and female), to suggest a more fluid gender and sexual identity. Other historical examples include suede shoes, shoelaces (rather than buckles), red neck ties and bleached hair. Hal Fischer’s famous 1977 book Gay Semiotics explores gay male archetypes in body and and dress. More recently, the idea of a queer haircut has emerged, especially for queer women. This concept of the queer cut, has even made it to the mainstream as evidenced by a recent InStyle article titled “What’s it Like to Have Hair Come Out Before You?”

Because queer people are typically forced to “come out” in a heteronormative society, part of this “coming out” process involves externalizing identity and eschewing clothing styles that previously felt constrictive. In a sense, queer people are subverting and/or rejecting the meaning of clothes given by a culture or community and investing clothes with new meaning. Subversion typically operates within accepted gender binaries. Examples might include a cis-female wearing a man’s suit, or a cis-male wearing makeup.  Rejection predictably operates outside accepted gender binaries. Examples might include cis-males who keep a beard and wear makeup, or cis-females who wear a men’s suit and pair it with stiletto heels. These subversions and rejections can be evaluated in terms of societal norms on a whole, but can also be considered within the queer community itself. Certain styles of clothing, including butch or femme, denote the “tribe” a person considers themselves to be a part of, providing symbolic queer meaning that doesn’t exist in the greater fashion community.  

Summing it Up

Clearly, queer fashion operates as a subset of the larger fashion system. While queer style overlays with fashion trends in general, the queer community has historically adapted these trends to their own needs. While not as obvious, queer clothing can also be utilitarian, providing solutions to problems experienced primarily by queer people. And finally, clothes are given meaning by society in general, often with an intrinsic moral code built in. Queer people often must subvert or reject these meanings and find their own, often allowing for greater visibility, within subsets of the queer community.

Photo:  Liz Leifer  at  DapperQ

Joshua Williams, Chief Branding Officer