DapperQ, Anita Dolce Vita

Talking About a Fashion Revolution: LGBTQ+ DapperQ

Anita Dolce Vita talks about the LGBTQ+ fashion DapperQ and its ungendered revolution against the status quo.

DapperQ Style: Ungendering Fashion
Anita Dolce Vita, ed.
Harper Design
May 2023

PopMatters met with the founder and editor-in-chief of DapperQ, a digital queer style magazine, to discuss her new book, DapperQ Style: Ungendering Fashion. The book is a groundbreaking compendium of fashion within the LGBTQ+ community. It’s not a “how to” manual but a guide where readers can hone their style sensibilities by learning from the examples that speak to them.

Anita Dolce Vita’s DapperQ Style book has been long-awaited by many in the queer community as it grapples with the complex conundrums that speak to our unique experiences of identity through what we wear. The book is divided into visibility, belonging, and liberation. The order is not necessarily a linear one. Visibility, the first section, is about being seen and recognized. These are cornerstones of the queer community’s acceptance and safety. Belonging and liberation are not often treated as sequential steps. They are more like intertwined and ongoing processes that form the backbone of our survival and communication.

Many DapperQ Style contributors are longtime activists and icons whom Dolce Vita has known and worked with over the years and who are offering surprising contributions that will challenge readers’ assumptions and beliefs about fashion and identity. Like DapperQ Style, this interview emphasizes the importance of fashion as a means of self-expression and identity formation.

Dolce Vita sees fashion as a powerful tool for self-affirmation and liberation. Style allows people to express themselves and defy societal norms and expectations. Dolce Vita continues to serve as an exemplar in the queer community, helping to articulate a roadmap for navigating the complexities of fashion and identity while simultaneously celebrating the diversity and resilience of the LGBTQ+ community.

(This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.)

Photo: The Street Sensei | Courtesy of Harper Design

Countless fashion experts and queer icons would have been glad to write the foreword for this book. Why did you ask teenage drag sensation Desmond Is Amazing?

I’ve been following Desmond’s journey for a long time and always loved his style. It’s important to have visibility for youth, to see thriving and joyous adults, and to understand what is possible. While there have been many conversations around the idea of “it gets better”, there are not enough visible youth who have made it, who are actually platformed. Social media has changed that landscape. What I found interesting about Desmond’s journey was his personal growth and his supportive family throughout the process.

In this political climate, we need adults, whether family members, community members, or allies, to support young people on their journey to self-affirmation, identity, and feeling loved. Desmond is the perfect example of coming into your own and having the support we didn’t necessarily get. He was brave enough to do it as a child, despite facing death threats, bullying, and accusations of parental abuse.

Sadly, this same rhetoric is what we’re seeing right now, with laws being enacted in places like Florida that could potentially take queer and trans children away from their parents. Desmond’s story is a natural fit for DapperQ Style.

In his foreword, Desmond indicates that drag is kind of a gateway drug to the larger project of visibility and belonging for queers. Gateways usually have gatekeepers, though either financial or cultural ones. What do you say to all the people who feel unable to find a way to their own fashion?

I want to address the first part of that question carefully. I hesitate to use the term ‘gateway’ because, within our own communities, we use it differently. When people read about DapperQ Style, I don’t want them to assume, “Oh, see, exposure to drag queens is a gateway to some sort of grooming process or recruitment.” What I took from Desmond’s foreword is the importance of visibility. It is critical to see drag performers and to see people embrace who they are and dress in a way that makes them feel their most authentic selves. That’s what I want to clarify.

But there are many gatekeepers, and I’d like to know what you mean specifically. The fashion industry, society, and policies all have gatekeepers who determine what is acceptable or not. What do you mean by gatekeepers, specifically?

I’m thinking of young people, or people of any age starting over in life, who want to change how they think about clothing so that they can more adequately express their gender, but keepers of the gates make them feel deterred in that prospect. What would you say to those who feel unable to get started on the project that DapperQ is working toward?

I believe the first step is to understand and distinguish your true self. Many of us make decisions unconsciously or consciously because we fear rejection from our families, face financial stakes or avoid violence. But many people, whether they identify as LGBTQ+ or not, ritualistically go along with certain types of fashion, style, and beauty routines without understanding the origins of it because they’ve just been indoctrinated or socialized to believe that it’s what beauty is and they should aspire to it.

The industry perpetuates the message that “you’re not good enough the way you are; you have to change who you are to be worthy.” The gatekeepers of what’s socially acceptable are the patriarchy and white colonialist standards of beauty, which dictate how just two different ways – man or woman – can dress, man or woman, can wear their hair or adorn themselves or not adorn themselves with jewelry, or accessories, or makeup, or shoes.

So I think the first step is to consciously ask yourself, “Is the way I style myself serving me? Does it make me feel good inside, or am I forcing myself to do it to be accepted?” This is key to discovering who you truly are. Queer people are trailblazers because so many of us have to come to terms with our sexual orientation, where we have to come to terms with the fact of “who are we really? And will I be authentic to myself and how I live my life?” Yeah.

Photo: The Street Sensei | Courtesy of Harper Design

Organizing the DapperQ show at the Brooklyn Museum every year is a massive undertaking during New York Fashion Week. Do you think there will come a time when the DapperQ show won’t be needed to hold open that ideological space anymore? Or how might the mission of the show change over time?

Honestly, that’s a good question. Part of me is very aware of that. You see this also right now with these intergenerational battles of what’s trendy and what’s not anymore, and I think many people get caught up in that because they want to prove, “Oh, I did this first,” or “I’m still relevant.” People don’t realize that all these things about trends are rooted in that machine of you constantly needing to be buying and consuming something, whatever the next thing is, because we need to sell you something. If not, you’re not relevant, and you’re not beautiful.

I don’t see much change in the fashion and beauty industry when it comes to inclusivity. They only recently started to pivot towards inclusivity because younger generations want to see themselves represented. This has created a new market for plus-size, people of color, and trans and non-binary consumers. However, companies are always thinking about the next thing. While there’s hope in my heart that these companies really want to do the right thing, there are always dollars and cents behind it.

So when I tie all of this back to the DapperQ show, I think there’s always going to be a need for it because what we’re still seeing in mainstream fashion is that they are not actually platforming queer, trans, black, POC designers. It’s usually the old guard of designers, cis het white men at the top, or even cis queer white men at the top. The models might change here or there, but the diversity is pretty performative. The brilliance of the Brooklyn Museum show is that not only are we platforming models, but we’re platforming designers who are not usually given a seat at the table in mainstream fashion.

One of the gatekeepers is – whether it’s art or fashion – who you know and how you’re able to navigate these worlds that are deeply racist, homophobic, transphobic, misogynist, fatphobic, et cetera. How well you can navigate that to get a little tiny seat at the table or a little tiny crumb.

Brooklyn Museum provides us Beaux Arts Court for free as a venue. All the ticket sales go to staffing that day, so the museum is available to us all day and night. It shows Brooklyn Museum’s commitment to providing a space for designers to show at a very low cost. Money and social class have a huge role in whether you can get out your designs to a larger audience.

Kudos to the Brooklyn Museum for making that kind of political commitment with their dollars. On the subject of classism, capitalism used to try to erase us, but it now seems mostly happy to mainstream appropriation or annual pride merchandise sales. Do you worry that boosting the visibility of queer style and queer designers through the DapperQ channels provides more grist for the mill of cooptation?

It’s unfortunate; I do see that. We had a designer who showed with us in the second year and has since felt the effects of being appropriated, not because of our show in particular, but because of her visibility on social media. It seems that fast fashion brands are the main culprits when it comes to appropriation.

Austin Bjorkman, the owner of Trans Guy Supply, started his work in 2014-2015 and gained recognition when he styled the ASAP rap and hip-hop collective. Austin’s work was original, but years later, it was all over from Forever 21 to H&M. It’s just getting more and more competitive because now it’s not just competing against big designers like Calvin Klein and other household names, but fast fashion as well. They’re just scouring everything and saying, ‘What are people wearing? How can we get it out there as quickly as possible?’

I was on a Huffington Post live segment with Luna Luis Ortiz, who is known as one of the fathers of the ball scene in the ’90s. He noted that in the ’90s, even when they were having underground balls, high-end designers would send in reps to observe and sketch what queer and trans people of color were doing underground. Later, those designers would feature those designs on mainstream runways without any credit or acknowledgment of their origins.

Even to this day, if you ask people who are in younger generations or not part of the queer community where vogue comes from, they’ll immediately think of Madonna. Appropriation is not new. I don’t think giving queer style a bigger audience through a book or runway show, social media, or website will change anything in terms of what companies are engaging in cultural appropriation. However, I think it will create a greater archive of where this history came from and who the trailblazers were and provide a greater platform for people to get their work out there and acknowledged.

At the individual level, successful visual activism through fashion probably means that people can tell you are queer just by looking at you. It is still the case in too much of America that this is a safety risk. Personal safety aside, is there any strategic value left for passing in your ideal queer-style utopia?

Well, that’s another thing we need to talk about. You know, our mission at DapperQ is to ungender fashion. Fashion does not have a gender. It has been gendered for specific reasons as a tool to maintain strict binaries and hierarchies. But fashion doesn’t have a sexual orientation. I think queer folks have been at the forefront of these discussions, ungendering fashion and recognizing that fabric, clothing, and patterns do not have a gender. So overall, our goal is not to categorize people as straight or gay or passing or not passing. We’re not into making those judgments or putting any value on that.

Our goal, ultimately, is for people to be able to dress in a way that feels most authentic to them, to have an awakening of why they dress the way they dress, and to have autonomy in making decisions on how they dress and present themselves in a way that makes them feel their best selves.

So the notion of passing is replaced with the idea of serving. Today, I am serving executive high school English teacher. “What I mean to convey with my wardrobe is XYZ,” and so if you can see that that’s what I’m serving, this replaces the idea that I pass.

Exactly, yeah. What message do I want to convey to you about how I’m dressing right now? If it’s authentic to myself, then it’s serving, right? It’s serving its purpose, and it’s also in service to me. I don’t think our goal is to get people to pass as straight or as queer. In fact, some of the things we find problematic in cis-het communities are also problematic in queer communities where there’s this litmus test, right? Have you looked queer enough to be queer? What I love about younger generations is that there’s more fluidity in how people identify and present themselves.

For me, as a Gen X, it was really hard. When I came out as a lesbian and looked a certain way, people would say, ‘Oh, you’re not really a lesbian,’ or ‘You’re going through a phase,’ or ‘You’re a lipstick lesbian.’ That was very Butch-Femme binary.

I really admire younger generations that say your sexual orientation has nothing to do with your gender presentation or gender; all of these concepts are separate. You can also be fluid. There are days when I consider myself a high femme, but there are also days when I put on a flannel and hiking boots and serve Butch realness. I’m from New Mexico, you know?

That’s what we’re really fighting for: autonomy and not being under the thumb of society saying you need to dress a certain way. This is especially true when we talk about queer and trans experiences as homogeneous. When you think about someone who’s black and queer, for example, and they have dreadlocks, there are no federal protections for them. They could get fired because the status quo considers their hair as ‘unprofessional’.

Who makes up these terms of what professional-looking is, right? Fashion, beauty, and how we present ourselves are highly political and are always weaponized against us. So our goal, as you said, is not necessarily to ask, ‘Am I passing?’ or ‘Am I getting this approval?’ but ‘Who am I serving?’ and then serving my most authentic self.”

All the photos for DapperQ were taken by the Street Sensei, who also contributed a two-page self-portrait spread. What was it like to work closely on such a big project with them?

It was an amazing experience, as we also had a generational gap. I met Kim, the Street Sensei when somebody donated an Airbnb for us to go on a writer’s retreat. I went with a group of influencers who were also bloggers at the time, and they brought the Street Sensei along as their photographer for their daily blog. Kim told me how much DapperQ meant to them. It was such an interesting thing to hear from a younger generation. She explained that there was nothing for people like her when she came out while in college. There was only Tumblr and DapperQ, which she read daily and saw herself in. It gave her the inspiration and self-confidence to find her own style.

It was a great experience to become friends with Kim and work with her on an artistic level because she’s so talented. Working intergenerationally with queer folks, queer and trans folks who take care of our communities like family, was just fantastic. It was great to work with someone who carries on the torch of capturing queer style and our stories.

On the acknowledgments page, you dedicate DapperQ to your late grandmother, and then the next shout-out goes to your five living and deceased cats. I’m thinking about Tika the Iggy and other sensational pets on social media. Is gendered fashion a challenge for our companion animals, too? How do you think of your kitties, Baby Kitty, Reece, Abby, Sir Jeffrey Pickles, and Sir William Cheddar, as participating in the queer style revolution?

I think my cats carried me through a lot with unconditional love. That’s a representation of our own queer families. Our own families don’t always give queer and trans folks unconditional love based on not only who we love but how we want to present in the world.

There were tough times when my friends from New Mexico didn’t want to associate with me anymore after I came out as queer and started dating more masculine-presenting women. They would say things like, ‘If you’re gonna date a woman, why not just date a man?’ My cats were there for me unconditionally. There’s a lot that humans can learn from our pets. They love us no matter what we look like or how we feel. They sat with me on my lap as I typed away many nights, producing shows, content for the blog, and finally, this book.

You have been your own publisher, via the DapperQ site, for so long. Why do a book now, or at all? Will you continue to work on book projects in the future? What are you working on next?

So, what I’m working on next is the fashion show. It’s quite funny because the show takes so much work, and what I would love to work on next is a reality TV show about the fashion show. There’s so much behind-the-scenes drama and work that people don’t even know about, and it would probably beat out a lot of reality TV shows. So if any producers are watching or reading this, please consider it.

Every year, I say I’m not going to do the fashion show anymore because of all the drama, but then the magic happens. I see the crowds cheering, the models looking beautiful and proud, and the designers having an opportunity to get their work out into the world, and I can’t resist doing it again.

I’m also in the midst of book launches, interviews, and creating content for the website, which admittedly has gone a bit ignored because we were working on the book. However, what was important for me was to get our style archived on all platforms, digital, website, Instagram, social media, Tik Tok, fashion shows, speaking and panel engagements, and an actual print book. People want to feel the book in their hands, turn the pages, carry it with them, and see it on their coffee table. They want to read the stories and have the same access, visibility, and acknowledgment that all other mainstream fashion has gotten. That’s why creating a print book was so important to me.

Moving forward, I would love to continue working on other forms of DapperQ, including a style manual that’s less authoritative and more of a how-to for people coming into their own fashion sense but needing a little bit more support from the community.

Anita Dolce Vita. Photo: The Street Sensei | Courtesy of Harper Design

NYFW 2022| DapperQ LGBTQ Fashion Show