Butch Dyke or Earth Mother or Something Else Entirely?

Patricia Field - photo (partial) by ©Mike Ruiz

For years, society had two perceptions of what lesbians look like. Today, high fashion and lesbians aren't such strangers -- and it's getting harder to tell, Is She or Isn't She?

More than any other reality show, Project Runway has been good for its gay contestants. Season Four contestant Chris March recently won raves for the elegant and classic white gown that Meryl Streep wore to the Oscars. "Fierce" diva munchkin Christian Siriano, Season Four's winner, has shown at New York Fashion Week several times, and had his line has been picked up by Saks. Nick Verreos' line, designed with partner David Paul, has been carried by Nordstrom, and he's done red carpet commentary for several cable networks. Santino Rice has been a judge for the Miss Universe pageant and is a current judge for RuPaul's Drag Race, while Jack Mackenroth became an internet sensation when nude pics popped up on the web, but today he is best known for his work as an AIDS advocate.

Then, of course, there are the lesbians, such as…Well, there was one, but you would have never known it from watching the show. Zulema Griffin was an out lesbian when she appeared on Season Two of Project Runway, but all references to her sexual orientation were edited out of the show. According to her MySpace page, she has been busy working; however, it seems that her last major fashion show was in 2008.

"Gay man" and "fashion designer" have been synonymous for years, and many of the world's greatest designers were or are gay men. Yet, despite the fact that Hollywood's most famous designer, eight time Oscar winner Edith Head, was long rumored to have been a lesbian, few lesbians have been major successes in the world of high fashion. Gay or straight, one tends to think of "lesbian" and "fashion" as being synonymous in the same way that "football player" and "virginity" are.

Typically, one of two images comes to mind. First, there is the butch lesbian, with her wardrobe of overalls, chino painter paints, tees, flannel shirts, and workboots, accented with multiple hoop earrings, most in the ears, with others scattered among various body parts. Tattoos are optional.

Then there is the Earth Mother, wearing her Indian cotton blouse with hand embroidered trim and tie-dyed flowing cotton skirt that comes to just above her Birkenstock sandals, accessorized with hemp rope necklaces wrapped around hand blown Peruvian glass beads. Shaving is optional.

Then, suddenly, there emerged in the mainstream gaze via TV shows lesbians with style, such as Queer Eye for the Straight Girl's Honey Labrodor and The L Word's Alexandra Hedison. Dashing and handsome men like Tom Ford and John Barrowman are proving that gay men can be manly, just as Portia de Rossi and Clementine Ford have shown that lesbian women can be sensual and glam.

Still, there hasn't emerged a lesbian aesthetic for fashion. Historically, women who were out self-identified through what have become stereotypical representations of lesbians, the butch and the earth mother; it was a quick way to label oneself and make one's preference known to others who were savvy. Other lesbians were content to blend in, which meant following current fashion trends for the mass market. Some women dressed according to the lesbian stereotype at home, while adopting a more fashionable, socially-accepted look at work.

There are plenty of stores and websites that sell tees, hats, and buttons for the activist lesbian or woman who wants to declare her sisterly camaraderie, either humorously or militantly. Among the offerings include the tees "I don't need to get drunk to be a lesbian" and "Yes we are lesbians and no you can't watch" at Zazzle and "A Dyke and her truck -- it's a beautiful thing" and "My other shirt is your girlfriend" at DykeTees. As fun as these may be, they aren't likely to help the career-minded lesbian climb up the corporate ladder. Seriously, when was the last time Tammy Baldwin appeared on the floor of the House of Representatives in a "Nerdy girls make me hot" tee-shirt?

Clementine Ford

Naturally, department and clothing stores don't separate their wares according to lesbian or heterosexual aesthetic. For most lesbian women, what is on the rack at J.C. Penney or Macy's is fine, even if it's on the rack in the men's department. While certain shops and websites may cater to a lesbian market, few have the full range of clothing available in mass market shops. Thus, the question rises, where's a gal pal supposed to get both her work clothes and her' 'men's' boxers?

For those in white collar jobs, that can be tough. Of the numerous websites offering clothing for lesbian clientele, only one, Dykes in the City , offered a skirt that would be "job appropriate" (the Racy Red Pencil Skirt, a sleek and sexy "Joan Crawford Lipstick Red" number available for $45).

While they may not be working to create a Lesbian Fashion Trend, several gay women have been making headlines in the world of high fashion of late, which bodes well for other lesbians who have a clear vision of style, compelling them to step into the competitive world of design. The most well-known of these is Patricia Field, the woman who single-handedly turned Carrie Bradshaw (and her portrayer, Sarah Jessica Parker) into a fashion icon. Field was the costume designer for the TV series and film Sex in the City.

This flaming redhead has won five Costume Designer Guild Awards (four for Sex in the City and one for Ugly Betty) and two Emmys (for Sex in the City and the variety special Mother Goose's Rock and Rhyme), as well as receiving an Oscar nomination for her work on The Devil Wears Prada. Field's strength as a designer was described as an ability to take "pretty garments, downright ugly garments, circus-worthy accessories and dust-laden vintage and (finding) a way to make them all play nice together."

Field has her own line, available on her website, Patricia Listed on the site are everything from martini glasses to men's thermals to a full line of women's clothing, including dresses, purses, jewelry, shoes (including some pumps that scream "sex"), and wigs. New to the Field line is Keith Haring by House of Field, a line of hats, tees, dresses, and totes inspired by the legendary gay artist. Field's designs are for those who are bold and colorful. As well as thin. Her work is daring, trendy, and chic, and intended for a specific demographic, which isn't your average lesbian (or straight woman, for that matter).

Beth Ditto

Beth Ditto isn't thin, and she isn't your average lesbian, either. Reportedly, Ditto is a size 28, yet she has emerged as a style icon in the last year. For many, Ditto is known as the lead singer of Gossip, and she was interviewed by PopMatters' Robert Collins concerning her work with the band. [The Essential Selection: An Interview with Beth Ditto (30 July 2007)] In addition to her work with Gossip, though, Ditto has been making her presence known in the fashion world, showing up at several runway shows and appearing nude on the cover of the premiere issue of Love magazine.

Now, Ditto has launched her own line, intended for the larger girl. The line, released through Evans Clothes, is available for purchase in stores throughout the UK, but may also be purchased online at

Beth Ditto The line, released through Evans Clothes, is available for purchase in stores throughout the UK, but may also be purchased online. Ditto's designs are fun and funky, yet practical and frequently suitable for multiple settings. Her Domino Print Dress could easily be worn to the office and then out for drinks after work, while the Spot 2 in 1 Hoody could be worn to the club Saturday night and brunch Sunday morning (in case you don't have time to go home and change). Still, while her clothes may be more accessible by the average woman, their importance lies in their development of fun clothes and accessories for larger women, lesbian or otherwise.

Aisha Pew and Breonna Cole launched a line specifically for lesbians, called Studded. Pew recognized a fundamental truth about the fashion industry: "A lot of companies feel like gay women aren't going to spend money on fashion, or they don't think they have a fashion sense, which is an insult." ("New label throws fashion a curve", San Francisco Chronicle 17 December, 2004) She grew particularly frustrated going with her wife, Cole, from store to store as Cole looked for clothes that fit and were comfortable.

Thus, the two decided to create their own clothes line, featuring shirts and pants for women who preferred a more masculine look without having to wear men's clothing. Unfortunately, it doesn't appear as if the line had a long life, as a web search failed to show any recent activities. Still, the line, for however long it was in production, was a step in producing an aesthetic and fashion sensibility specifically designed for gay women.

The question, though, is whether there is a need for a lesbian vision in fashion. The idea that there should be a "lesbian look" is counter intuitive to the notion of individualism embraced by both gay culture and the women's rights movement. Pew and Cole are correct in that there should be a line of clothing for women that is more masculine in appearance, but contoured for the female anatomy. Such a line wouldn't be embraced by a solely lesbian clientele, either. By expanding its perceptions of womanhood somewhat, women's apparel could be diverse enough to embrace the tastes of all women, gay or straight.

The contributions of women like well-known artists Field and Ditto isn't that they are creating a new market of lesbian-designed clothing for lesbians. It's that they are entering a field where few like them have openly treaded before. They, along with a growing number of lesbian models, are proving that gay woman can be funky, fashionable, and faaaaabulous, thin or fat.

Fortunately, dress standards on the job have relaxed considerably in the last 25 years, which means that women no longer feel compelled to wear some variation of the blue blazer, blue skirt, white blouse, and red power scarf outfit seen on all types of women in the '80s. I found it amusing to watch high-heeled and power-skirted women college basketball coaches scratch and itch their way through the televised games of the women's tournament, clearly uncomfortable outside of their usual slacks and tennis shoes. Today's women have more options, and a new generation of lesbian designers are expanding those options for all women, coaches or otherwise.

Cheers, Queers, Pt. I To foreign minister and vice chancellor of Germany, openly gay Guido Westerwelle, who will preside over the opening ceremonies of this year's Gay Games in Cologne. Westerwelle has also signed on to be a patron of the games.

Cheers, Queers, Pt. II To my partner Jim, who has beat cancer for the second time. I can't wait to celebrate 15 years with him this October.

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