By Claire Watson
Not only can the things we wear catalyze self-expression, but they can be a way of finding like-minded folks. While clothes do not determine one’s sexuality or gender identity, those who find their voices hushed often find other ways to speak. And so, fashion became the secret language of The LGBTQ+ community and its sub-communities. The term “the closet” brings up images of queer people emerging from a cocoon of clothes, the term is more likely linked to the phrase “skeletons in the closet” rather than the LGBTQ+ community’s innate sense of fashion. Queer fashion has been consistently shaped by theatre. When it comes to theatre, leave your gender norms at the stage door.
Up until the late 17th century, women were not permitted to act on stage, as it was “immoral”. Instead, men dressed as women and this lead to the accidental representation of queer relationships and Shakespeare’s popularity among the current LGBTQ+ community, and we all know Shakespeare wouldn’t mind. Viewers of renaissance theatre had tickets to watch the gender binary imposed and then torn apart right before their eyes. During the restoration, women were finally allowed onto the stage, only the cross-dressing didn’t stop here. Things got even more gender-queer. From about the 1660s onwards, it became increasingly more common for women to play men on stage. These traditions still exist today. I find it important to mention the role theatre plays in queer fashion. We joke that heterosexuals in theatre are a minority, but most young LGBTQ+ people do find theatre to be a safe haven, with freedom of expression encouraged.
1800s England was populated by women named Tommy and men named Molly. Cross-dressing was a way for homosexual men and women to break free from the conservative and suffocating gender roles placed upon them. This subculture of Tommies and Mollies sprouted from the working class. Women, primarily queer women, often used cross-dressing as a way to make a living in a male dominated world. While this history of cross-dressing is often viewed under the lease of homosexuality, there is no doubt that many Mollies and Tommies were transgender.
The phenomenon may have begun in 1857 France, Oscar Wilde believes himself to be the setter of the green carnation trend. The writer instructed his male entourage to wear the green boutonnière to the opening night of his comedy Lady Windermere’s Fan.
These carnations are artificially dyed and became an important accessory to the 19th-century homosexual. They were a way of finding a community as well as friends and lovers. While we were all a bit disappointed in Elliot Page wearing a plain black suit to the MET Gala, his boutonnière had great historical significance.
Certain flowers have queer connotations. Violets are sapphic in nature due to the Greek, lesbian, poet Sappho who came from Isle of Lesbos, where the term lesbian derives from. Pansy became a term for flamboyant gay men, though is often used as a derogatory term. Lavender historically referred to love between men but was later used to reference queer women also. In the late 1960s, lesbian activists wore T-shirt’s with the phrase “lavender menace”, reclaiming the derogatory term that was coined by Betty Friedan. Now the lavender has a similar meaning to that of the rainbow.
Men’s fashion has always been popular in lesbian spaces. Gay women used the sex’s dress as a way of rebelling against society. In the 1920s, only the most daring of women would wear suits, rock a short haircut and sport the mystifying monocle. Not every woman to wear a monocle was a lesbian, but they were certainly popular amongst them. In the 1930s, a look into the Parisian lesbian bar Le Monocle, possibly half the women wore the spectacle. This tradition of women in suits continued into post-suffrage fashion trends with well-known women like Marlene Dietrich opting for a more androgynous look.
Gladys Bentley was a famous blues singer and avid wearer of tuxedos and lover of women. Bentley not only danced along the boundaries of class, sexuality and race, but also gender. If the term had existed perhaps Bentley would have identified as non-binary, or as a non-binary lesbian. Their fashion greatly inspired the lesbian community as they claimed masculinity for their own. They owned four tuxedos: two black; one maroon; and one grey, white, and tan, each topped with a cane, top hat, and lipstick.
1960’s fashion was a wonderful explosion of gaudy patterns and bright, mismatching colours. Male silhouettes were loose and flowy but tight at the hips. Regular shoes were swapped for heels. In 1957 Scottish designer John Stephen opened the first boutique for men. David Bowie is a perfect example of a ‘peacock revolutionist’. As is common in queer fashion history, the LGBTQ community rebelled against the imposed gender norms. 1960s’ fashion shows gay men moving away from societal expectations and to a more individual and feminine look. Of course, our transgender siblings have always been the lead explorers of gender expression, and we have amazing trans women like Marsha P. Johnson to thank for fighting for the liberation of LGBTQ+ folk.
As lesbian activists took to the streets, they strived to be as loud as possible, lacing up thick-soled boots that would reverberate their stomps throughout the streets. Thus, Doc Martens became a popular boot in lesbian spaces. In the UK Doc Martens were popular amongst skinheads, who used the colour of their laces, (when ladder laced), to communicate their ideals. Challenging this, Californian punks reinvented the lace code to be anti-fascist, with purple laces being an indicator of homosexuality.
As time moved on, people dressed more conservative again. The 1980s turned away from the bright peacock revolution and its bright prints. Butch fashion was not a copy of men’s, rather it evolved from the masculine dressed women of the early 20th century. Feminist buttons, bandanas, and vests were lesbian staples, and I would argue, are still to this day. Club Kids was a subculture of the drag community that experimented with fashion as an art form. They wore shocking costumes and makeup that aimed to distort their bodies and present themselves as art pieces. This culture thrived in New York in the 80s and 90s and grew into a fashion-forward movement among queer youth. Club Kids married sci-fi to haute couture, circus clowns to punks, horror to decadence. Gender fluid and non-binary identities thrived in this scene as all gender roles and stereotypes were left at the door.
Pride flags are abundant in the LGBTQ+ community and are proudly worn by members at all times of the year, most commonly through patches, pins, or t-shirts. While cross-dressing has always been a part of the queer dress, we have drag to thank for a lot of our current trends. Nothing captures the campiness of LGBTQ+ fashion the same way drag does, but that is an exploration for another day. Crazy silhouettes, bright colours, sparkles and a disregard for the binary, drag takes everything that has been valued by queer people and takes it to new heights.
Lucy and Yak, an English clothing brand is quite popular among the community due to its bright colours, androgynous fits, and crazy patterns. Recently they posted a video to their Instagram stating, “Fashion has always been inherently linked to queer culture. For me, it allows me to express my identity and also make connections with other queer folk.” As society loses its interest in heteronormativity, we too begin to lose the gendered connotations of our clothes. We are not our clothes, rather our clothes signify how we choose to express ourselves on a given day. This being said, trends still thrive in certain communities. For example, it’s common knowledge (and an inside joke) among the LGBTQ+ community that cuffed jeans indicate bisexuality. Big, goofy earrings made from bric a brac are often worn by lesbians. Effeminate gay men often accessorise with a pearl necklace. Crazy patterned shirts, Doc Martens and Vans, while popular items at the moment, are staples of every member of the LGBTQ+ community.