Part Five: Queer Fashion Series



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 Five: Queer Fashion

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

What a Drag! London Underground. Photo:  Joshua Williams

What a Drag! London Underground. Photo: Joshua Williams

We have established that there is indeed a queer aesthetic—a way to dress—that externalizes queerness to the the outside world and facilitates overall queer visibility. This is particularly evident when participating in queer-specific events and venues such as the annual DapperQ fashion show in Brooklyn, NY or the Cubby Hole in New York City, or when visiting queer friendly neighborhoods, such as the “gayborhood” in Philadelphia or Chelsea in New York City. In these situations, it seems that queer people feel particularly safe in being their true selves, even accentuating their “gay” qualities, more so than in other public spheres.

Beyond these queer spaces, queer dress can also be seen on the streets, at the coffee shop, on the subway, or at work. Because of social structures, these forms of dress tend to be less flamboyant and more subtle—recognizable to other queer people and their allies for their “queer aesthetic.” Examples of this might be a short haircut or suit and tie on a cis-female, or colorful, less tailored clothes on a cis-male. And in this way, it’s possible to find connection with others who potentially share similar values around sexuality and gender.

However, to a less educated eye, these styles might simply be seen as different, without any significant meaning related to queer culture. Corinne Phillips, host of the podcast Transition of Style, often explores these conflicts in the workplace or social environments with her guests, parsing out the motivations of “dressing differently,” or managing expectations with co-workers. "It can be really challenging and yet empowering to walk into an environment such as the workplace where certain rules must be followed and rewrite those rules to suit yourself. If you're a cis female and you present as more masculine and business attire is required then maybe you wear a suit. It’s about asking yourself, where can I find comfort for myself within the structure?” she says.

Montreal in August. Photo:  Joshua Williams

Montreal in August. Photo: Joshua Williams

Location, Location, Location

It’s important to recognize that queer visibility and expression is easier in larger metropolitan areas, where there is more diversity in ethnicity and culture, as well as more open and liberal attitudes around gender and sexuality in general. The ease of individual expression in these locations also leads to less overall hegemony in dress, which ironically blurs the line between queer style and other style expressions, including the hippies of the past and hipster of today, a concept explored in more depth in Part Three. In this situation, visibility is more possible, but often gets subsumed into overlapping communities and ever-changing fashion trends, leading to a sense invisibility. Perhaps this is why there seems to be constant geographical movement of the queer community from one neighborhood to another. This is certainly true in places such as New York City where the community has moved from West Village to East Village to Williamsburg to Bushwick to Ridgewood in just the past 25 years alone. Even as queer people demand integration into society as a whole, there is still a desire to stand out from the hetero norm.

I Choose Love in NYC. Photo:  Joshua Williams

I Choose Love in NYC. Photo: Joshua Williams

Outside of cosmopolitan areas, the idea of expressing one’s queer identity becomes more complicated. With less acceptance of LGBTIA+ identities queer people are less safe in expressing themselves outside societal norms. Visibility in this case, can lead to harassment, discrimination, wage loss and even violence. Human resource departments and schools are often less equipped to deal with dress that doesn’t fit social norms, an issue that gets even more complex when considering the intersectionality of race, gender and sexuality. For example, black and latina queer women, as well as trans people, are often caught in the crosshairs of corporate and academic culture, the so called “bathroom wars.” According to a 2012 American Progress article, “Recent research and data point to significant disparities in earnings for gay and transgender workers” as well “workplace discrimination in hiring and firing.”  For example, “gay and bisexual men earn 10 percent to 32 percent less than similarly qualified heterosexual men,” and “the average household income for same-sex couples raising children is $15,500, or 20 percent less than heterosexual couples. Furthermore, the “wage gap for many families headed by same-sex couples contributes to significant disparities in income earnings.” In short, in many places queer people are not afforded the opportunity to be out, stand out, or be visible. And the pressure to look or dress queer, based on what is seen on television or social media, may actually lead to more anxiety than a sense of well-being.

For more information on current LGBTQIA+ labor data, regarding workplace and educational discrimination, this 2018 article by American Progress is an excellent primer.

Queer & Proud.  LookHuman.

Queer & Proud. LookHuman.

New Wave Activism

In the last few years, with Trump in office, the queer community has been forced to coalesce again in a more activistic role, a new wave of activism. The administration is actively trying to limit rights around sexuality and gender as they relate to hiring and firing. This has largely played out on social media—a positive outcome—but has spilled into the streets as well, reminiscent of the Queer Nation and Women’s Marches of the past. And in this environment, we are beginning to see the reemergence of the activist logo on tee-shirts, pins and hats. In his concluding essay for the 2013 book “A Queer History of Fashion,” Jonathan D. Katz proclaims  “To wear a tee-shirt today, as I once did, boldly reading “QUEER” would now not even be read as a non-ironic statement by other queers. That we have no single message to emblazon, as we once did, in bold sans serif on our chests, is, I think, the surest sign we’re winning.” And yet, we find ourselves at the beginning of 2019 facing an uncertain future, wherein the immediacy of proclaiming queer values, without irony or nuance, feels necessary for survival.

—Joshua Williams, Chief Branding Officer

Joshua T WilliamsComment