Part Four: 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:
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 Four: Queer Fashion
Do queer designers make inherently queer clothes?
We’ve established that clothes are imbued with meaning by all levels of society as a way to establish group identity and visibility and to express a personal sense of style. And these meanings—dress codes and standards—are palpable, powerful non-verbal forms of communication. Clearly, fashion brands and designers, recognize and understand these meanings, and the power they have, as they create new styles and collections for their customers. It’s part of their role to distill the cultural zeitgeist of any given season into the form of wearable, even sellable, dresses, pants and shirts and bags.
It just so happens, that gender fluidity and queer identity is a major part of our current social and political discourse. This conversation, playing out largely via social media, has led to massive shifts in the fashion industry, both internally and externally. As gender fluid model Elliott Sailors stated in a recent interview at FIT, “Consumers have the power to change things...when we share, like or comment [on social media], brands get that we want inclusivity.” She continued, “there has been a major shift since I came out in 2013, and the effect can be seen throughout the fashion industry.”
Internally, companies like Ted Baker, Victoria’s Secret and Vogue UK have had to grapple with their corporate culture and reconsider company policies around gender parity, hiring practices, sexual harassment and employee diversity. Externally, some companies have stepped up their game to engage more authentically with queer consumers, including ASOS, Milly, Vivienne Westwood and Gucci, offering more inclusive styles for all queer bodies, and including more diversity in their marketing campaigns. Others, have failed miserably. Just this past month, when asked if Victoria’s Secret would ever feature trans models, then-Chief Marketing Officer Ed Razek, stated “No, I don’t think we should. Because the show is a fantasy. It’s a 42-minute entertainment special.” The fall-out was immediate, including a major drop in sales, and the lowest rating ever for the annual television fashion show. Singer Halsey even issued a statement calling the lingerie brand out for their insensitivity on Instagram, which went viral.
In short, brands and designers are now having to think, design and market more inclusively. And yet, there is an irony in this very statement, in that many of those people who work in the industry, especially designers, are in fact queer.
In and Out
The fashion industry has long been seen as a bastion, a safe place, for queer people. It’s an industry that celebrates diversity and creative expression. An industry that challenges the status quo. There is a long history of queer designers, going back to the early 20th century, including Balenciaga, Dior and Charles James. Some historians even believe Chanel was bisexual, despite her rants to the contrary, describing Dior and his contemporaries as “little queers.” However, despite these examples, the reality of working in the fashion industry is much more complex. It’s an industry rife with misogyny and corporate greed, with those in top management positions often very disconnected from their creative teams. As Fred Gross wrote for The Advocate in 1997, there is “compelling proof that fashion owes its very life to the gay sensibility” and yet remained “strangely closeted.” Designers were concerned about retaining their jobs and their customers, and were fearful of being outed to the general public, even if they were out to their friends and colleagues. This reached a fevered pitch in the 1980s and 90s at the height of the AIDS crisis and anti-gay sentiment in America.
It’s only been recently that academics and researchers have determined to look at fashion from a queer lens, considering the likes of Dior and Yves Saint Laurent from the perspective of their gender expression and sexual identity, and to consider the queer connection between designer and design. In 2013, the The Museum at FIT, under the direction of Valerie Steele, presented A Queer History: From the Closet to the Catwalk seeking to “explore the ‘gayness’ or ‘queerness’ of fashion by focusing on several related themes.” The exhibit and corresponding book, was meant to “draw attention to the historic presence of gay men, lesbians, bisexuals, and transgender people in the fashion system...and stress the creativity and resistance to oppression expressed by LGBTQ subcultural and street styles, which have often transgressed sex and gender roles.” And finally, the exhibit explored “the relationship between fashion and gay culture.” The exhibition and book was the first of its kind, and is considered a tipping point in the discussions around queer culture in the fashion industry. It also concurred with fast changing conversations in the American culture and politics as the fight for gay rights and marriage equality were heating up, precipitated again through social media.
Identity is a multi-layered concept and hard to parse out completely, especially in its relationship to design. It’s rare, especially in an historical context, that fashion was made “queer,” especially for general consumption. Marc Jacobs has stated, “I don’t believe my sexuality has any bearing on how I design clothes.” Understandably, people do not want their work, or creativity, to be reduced to their sexuality. However, something as innate as gender and sexuality likely has an effect on how one sees the world and how relates to those around them. This relationship is sure to have an effect on design, whether in a literal sense, or from an innate sensitivity to queer issues. For example, despite Chanel’s anti-homosexual statements, she was clear in her intention to design more wearable, masculine clothing for women, and was known for her close relationships to women. Rudi Gernreich, who chose not to be out during his lifetime, was famous for his unisex designs, especially the monokini. In contrast, designers such as Jean Paul Gaultier and Christian Lacroix, have been more obvious in their queer sensibility. Gaultier in particular has included skirts in his menswear collections, and is famous for subverting socially accepted standards for clothes, including the cone-shaped corset that Madonna wore as a symbol of female empowerment. More recently, Alexander McQueen used fashion as a way to tease, shock and provoke the viewer and wearer into conversations about gender and sexuality, clearly drawing on his own life of contradictions--punk to parlor.
On the Fringe
Outside of the core fashion system, there have always been designers who have been loud and proud of their queer identities. Without corporate constrictions, they have had much more freedom to express an alternative version of fashion to the market. In some cases, these designers have also been able to reach a larger market, including The Blonds, Duckie Brown and Heatherette. In many case, these brands have relied heavily on the “club kid” to sell their wares--an authentic point of entry, because the designers themselves frequented New York City clubs.
Over the past decade the club scene has spilled into the mainstream with mass acceptance of electronic dance music. Jeremy Scott, in particular, reached mass market acceptance after his work with Katy Perry leading to his appointment with the Italian luxury brand Moschino. Nicola Formichetti has had some success as Lady Gaga’s stylist, which led to a brief appointment as creative director of French luxury house Thierry Mugler, and more recently to his brand Nico Panda. And while these brands offer a breath of fresh air from the more traditional fashion marketplace, they are not for everyone. In fact, there has come pushback that these brands only represent a small, specific part of the queer community—even if they are visibly queer.
We are reaching a tipping point wherein queer culture and mainstream culture are merging. Customers are demanding more inclusive fits in clothing and more diversity in styles. Many companies are moving to designing and providing more unisex clothing, that are more about body type than gender. The consumer demand is there. There is also a desire from customers for more authenticity and transparency from the companies they shop, warts and all. The internet, social media in particular, has made it difficult to hide behind a PR wall. However, that means there is a greater opportunity to engage more thoughtfully with customers, in a one-on-one relationship.
What’s more, with increasing support and visibility for the LGBTQ movement, a safer space has been created for designers to explore and share diverse ideas, without fear of being fired. There is a growing need for designers who are challenging gender binaries and pushing the limits of social expectations. And these designers are being encouraged by the likes of Ezra Miller, Asia Kate Dillon and Frank Ocean to push past traditional boundaries and to celebrate diverse perspectives.
Perhaps in this cultural shift, queer designers will be able to connect more readily with their own instincts, in whatever way feels right; a chance to strip away layers of long held expectations. And perhaps in this “stripping away” a rebalance will occur that focuses more on individual style, rather than on any one particular standard or aesthetic—queer or otherwise.
—Joshua Williams, Chief Branding Officer