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A Queer History of Fashion: From the Closet to the Catwalk

Valerie Steele

(Yale University Press; US: Oct 2013)

During the last quarter of 2013, the Fashion Institute of Technology of New York (FIT) put together an exhibition titled A Queer History of Fashion: From the Closet to the Catwalk. The exhibit was an intimate show that managed to be sprawling in content despite its small scale. While it certainly didn’t have the space, and probably the budget, of something like the instantly iconic Alexander McQueen show at the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute (which to date ranks as the most visited fashion exhibit in the city’s history), the show at FIT had an element every museum show aspires to but very few manage to fulfill: urgency.


The moment you walked into the exhibit, the lights were dimmed as if reminding you that you were about to enter a world that still lives in the shadows of taboo. Mannequins in Victorian garb welcomed you as cards revealing facts about the history behind Oscar Wilde’s “dandy” movement shared details that felt timely, timeless perhaps. As you made your way from this era towards the early 20h century, these clothes told a story of struggle, hunger for self expression and tragedy.


By the time you were walking towards the final part of the show in which two male mannequins wearing tuxes and two female mannequins in luxurious wedding gowns held hands, it was impossible to deny that the show had fulfilled its promise. But it also left one craving for more. Fortunately, FIT and Yale University Press worked together on a companion book to this exhibit which fills in the gaps found between the stunning Jean Paul Gaultier gowns and the hand painted t-shirts commemorating those who succumbed to AIDS.


The book opens with a question that seems like a cliché, it reminds us that some of the most famous designers and couturiers of all time have been queer and then proceeds to wonder if this is a stereotype or if gay men and women indeed have a special relationship with the world of clothing? “Do gay styles set trends that straight people follow? Fashion and style have played an important role within the LGBTQ community,” it explains, “yet surprisingly little has been published about high fashion as a site of gay cultural production.” This last statement is shockingly true.


Edited by Valerie Steele (director and chief curator of the Museum at FIT), A Queer History of Fashion proposes a reevaluation of the contributions made by queer men and women to the world that has taken them for granted despite showcasing them as clichés within its industry. Through a series of exemplary essays, Steele and other fashion experts study the way in which members of the LGBTQ community have changed the way in which the entire world dresses and how people look. “We are aware that the word queer has often been used in a derogatory sense” she admits “[but] we chose to use it here because for many people it seems more encompassing than ‘gay.’”


She continues by explaining how the closet, which at first sounds like yet another generalizing term, serves as a metaphor that relates fashion to an entire history of oppression and secrecy. It wasn’t until the late ‘70s that queer people became visible in the eyes of a society that had been denying them their rights and pretending they weren’t there at all.


In her essay (which gave name to the book and the exhibit), Steele takes us down an entire history going from Wilde to openly homosexual American couturier Charles James (who is getting an overdue retrospective of his own at the Met in the summer of 2014) and how during his most productive era, people like Christian Dior and Cristóbal Balenciaga were simultaneously setting trends of their own in Europe. She points out how the ideas proposed by these men challenged the way in which women and men looked at clothes.


Coco Chanel went out of business and closed her studio/atelier for a while in the early ‘30s. She went so far as to say that this happened because the entire world was “under the sway of the little queers.” Her homophobic sentiment was perpetuated by psychologists of the era who suggested that male homosexual designers were trying to make fools out of the women who wore their designs. This obviously led to repression in these designers’ lives and some of them tried to lead socially acceptable lives, entering loveless marriages to keep up appearances.


A Queer History of Fashion doesn’t follow an obvious route, and Steele instead lets all her contributors find an element that fascinated them and allows them to expand upon it. Therefore, we get a brilliant essay about the evolution of waist size from Peter McNeil, who reveals that during the 1700s it was acceptable to dress with the intention of appearing gender indefinite, although this eventually led to homosexual men being singled out and sent to the gallows for dealing in a trade that was deemed “too feminine”.  McNeil beautifully concludes his essay with the dynamics effective during the French Revolution, later reflected in the post-Stonewall era, in which fashion, once again, became a powerful medium of expression.


In her essay, Elizabeth Wilson discusses what a lesbian looks like with a tongue-in-cheekness made only more subversive because of her thorough historical research, while Vicki Karaminas continues where the former left us by writing an appraisal of lesbian fashion after the ‘80s.


Those expecting a coffee table book with pretty images and superficial captions will undoubtedly be disappointed because this is nothing if not a daring look at something that must be screamed from the rooftops. It’s practically impossible to read this book and not spend a few extra minutes in your day thinking about the meaning behind the shoes, shirt and pants you’re wearing.


How far we’ve come, and how far we’ve yet to go…

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Jose Solís wanted to be a spy since he was a child, which is why by day he works as a content editor and by night he writes and dreams of film. Although he doesn’t travel the world fighting villains, his mission is to trek the planet from screen to screen. He has been writing about film since 2003 and regularly contributes to The Film Experience and PopMatters. He is a member of the Online Film Critics Society.


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