Part Three: Queer Fashion Series

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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:

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 Three: Queer Fashion

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

Throughout history, clothing and accessories have been imbued with meaning beyond their utility and function. They have come to represent broad symbols of socio-economic status, religious beliefs, ethnic background, professional roles and cultural norms expressed through dress codes and accepted trends. Fashion becomes a form of nonverbal communication or social signalling, allowing speaking on our behalf before we even utter a word, known as semiotics. Thus clothes become a powerful way of “fitting in” or “standing out” from society in general. So powerful in fact, that academics have studied and written books on fashion semiotics, including Roland Barthe’s seminal 1967 book, The Fashion System.

Photo by  Heidi Sandstrom

Queer Aesthetics

It should come as no surprise then, that minority groups also imbue clothing and accessories with meaning, often in subversion of symbologies accepted by the majority population. Not only do these queer style aesthetics provide a means of group identification, they also offer insight to how a person identifies or expresses their gender, especially when using masculine/feminine spectrum accepted by society in general. Examples include those who dress as butch and tomboy (masculine; for more on this, read QwearFashion) or femme (feminine). By quantifying desired style characteristics for these specific style identities and others, brands have emerged that cater to each of these tribes, including Tomboy Toes, TomboyX, Playout Underwear, WildFang, Androgynous Fox and others.

Style Merger

Beyond these smaller tribes, there is an overall, recognizable queer aesthetic, often in the form of shorter haircuts, undercuts, hair dying, visible tattoos, body piercings, make-up and the adoption of less fitted (unisex) clothing styles. In many cases, this queer aesthetic has developed in tandem with a broader hipster aesthetic, adopted by urban millenials, living  in areas such as Williamsburg, Brooklyn. This phenomenon was remarked upon by Krista Barton’s 2016 opinion piece for The New York Times, entitled “Hipsters Broke My Gaydar.” Barton writes, “in cities, trendy young people — queer and straight, male, female and non-binary — are blending together, look-wise. That’s because mainstream style is now hipster style. But here’s the thing: Hipster style is just queer style, particularly queer women’s style. Put another way: Lesbians invented hipsters.” She continues emphatically, “You’re all lesbians now, America… And also: I’m sorry. But mostly for myself. Because it’s harder to tell who’s queer now. That means I’m going to have to just ask you at the farmers’ market, and that is going to be uncomfortable for everyone.” On one hand, this style merger suggests less of a need for queer people to identify differently than the broader population. It suggests that queer people are now more accepted and that the need to identify in smaller groups as a way to “fit in” or “be seen” is no longer as necessary. And in many ways, this style merger has expanded the options of fashion brands available to queer customers, to include national brands such as Urban Outfitters, Uniqlo and ASOS. These brands are recognizing a new customer base!

Photo by  Jorge Saavedra

More Trans Visibility

However, it’s also likely that more fringe groups in the queer community might now have an opportunity to become more visible by being markedly different in their fashion choices. There is currently a reckoning of how transgender people fit into the queer alphabet soup, as they have long been pushed to the sidelines, as a certain homonormativity (based on heteronormativity) prevailed to achieve marriage equality. In the political climate we live in, there is growing concern for trans visibility, and an emergence of a trans aesthetic, or at the very least brands who are catering to trans bodies.  

Gender Anarchy

Finally, those who reject gender labels and norms altogether, who prefer gender fluidity, even anarchy, are also becoming more vocally visible. Fluidity and anarchy by their very nature make it almost impossible to create a lasting group aesthetic. Their focus is rather on hyper individuality—standing outside of any common categorization—which provides, somewhat ironically, a sort of meta group visibility. It is difficult though for brands to know how to reach these customers, as these customers rarely follow expected norms or trends. However, brands that focus more on customization, unique, one-of-a-kind pieces, and one-on-one engagement, are finding success. This complete customer individuation is perhaps the ultimate queer aesthetic.

—Joshua Williams, Chief Branding Officer

Joshua T Williams