Museums

Subversive Style, Straight Out of the Closet

by Alexander Cavaluzzo on September 26, 2013

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Installation view of A Queer History of Fashion: From the Closet to the Catwalk. (photograph © The Museum at FIT, New York)

“Through clothing, an inner phantom self becomes visible,” quoth FIT Professor of Art History Anna Blume on a plaque before one of her sartorial signifiers: a relaxedly tailored suit, white shirt and tie. The Museum at FIT’s fall blockbuster exhibition, A Queer History of Fashion: From Closet to Catwalk, releases this “inner phantom” of queerdom in their survey and interpretation of LGBT style and history through fashion.

Fashion and, more importantly, style, has been the quintessence of queer identity in the West for quite some time. Proceeding from the decline of European aristocracy and the rise of the Protestant values of the bourgeoisie, the demarcation of gender in fashion became clear in Western style; ornamentation and embellishment, specifically, was reserved for women — the men’s sartorial standard of a three piece suit persists as the masculine uniform today. This schism in gendered western fashion allowed a new type of identification and subversion for queer individuals to adopt. From a time where it was a furtive indicator of sexual proclivity (the bandana code) to the art of drag and female impersonation, to even the assimilatory desire of many to “pass” as straight (sartorially speaking), queer style and queer identity have had an increasingly important relationship since the 19th century.

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Gianni Versace, leather evening dress, Autumn/Winter 1992. (photo courtesy Fashion Group Foundation)

The exhibition “writes gays back into history” both as innovators and authorities in the industry as well as documenting the historical, cultural and political elements intertwined with queer style. The eye candy and other expected mainstays of an MFIT show are present: random Alexander McQueen pieces paired with a quote about homosexuality, ultra-feminine Christian Dior concoctions of champagne silk, gowns from the Charles James archives. But walking through the main gallery, RuPaul’s Supermodel quietly pulsing over the sound system, punctuating the visitors’ every step, we witness a cocktail of mannequins that represent a wider breadth of the concept than simply pretty dresses.

In addition to the designs created for (we can ascertain) straight woman by gay men, included in contrast are select outfits curated for wear by famous queer individuals: Andy Warhol’s boyish matelot tee and skinny black jeans on a mannequin donned with a silver wig, Liberace’s salmon sequined cape and fur boa, Klaus Nomi’s amplified tuxedo created from oil slick plastic, and reinterpretations of Oscar Wilde’s foppish garb, all offering a glimpse into the personal expression of influential individuals and how intertwined their style is with their contributions to art and society.

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Installation view of the “Pretty Gentlemen” platform in the exhibition A Queer History of Fashion: From the Closet to the Catwalk. (photograph © The Museum at FIT, New York)

Entering the antechamber of the exhibit we’re introduced to a history of queer style by complementary looks: severely tailored suits worn by women, examples of “butch style” and “lesbo elegance” and heavily ornamented dandyesque outfits and red ridinghood-like costumes donned by “mollies.” Immediately we’re ushered into unfamiliar territory, a past century where queer expression existed in little pockets of societal existence; treasures of sartorial sensibility all but vanished from contemporary society.

This transitions into acute historical lineage of gender-bending clothing: the garçonne look for women of the 1920s paved the way for silver screen siren Marlene Dietrich’s provocative menswear outfits, which in turn inspired Yves St. Laurent’s revolutionary Le Smoking look.

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Tommy Nutter, suit, 1969, England, worn by Peter Brown. (photo courtesy The Museum at FIT)

Curators Fred Dennis and Valerie Steele’s subcultural selections combat the historical and high-end pieces on display. Specimens of authentic Castro Street style — leather vests, tight jeans with distressed crotches, cowboy boots — mingle with polemic ACT UP tees brandishing activist slogans. They also showed how these underground, sometimes offensive looks trickled up to high fashion, as exemplified in Jean-Paul Gaultier’s aggressively exaggerated cone-bra gown, a drag-mockery of cultural concepts of femininity rather than of biological female forms, rendered in a rich strigose rust velvet and Versace’s BDSM glamour strapped gowns.

The exhibition ends with a tableau of wedding outfits, mimicking the European tradition of ending couture shows with a bridal gown. This finale points to the envelopment of radical queer culture into the mainstream. Though they showcase dueling pairs of butch and femme lesbian ensembles, the final look are traditional (read: boring) menswear suits. It’s reductive, both in terms of the exhibition’s direction and breadth of gender-bending fashion abnormalities and the state of the union as a whole. Uninteresting suits and dresses that garner attention solely because they’re not paired “correctly” (heteronormatively) yet signify nothing above and beyond in terms of creativity or societal subversion.

Though all the proper points were touched, the exhibition suffered from its size; so many territories were covered that each of the individual initiatives felt clipped and superficial. An expansion of both ideas and the mere 100 outfits (including more accessories, which were sadly underrepresented) could’ve bumped this up from the first exhibition devoted to queer fashion to the definitive exhibition on the subject.

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Gay Pride “Kings and Queens 3,” 1989. (photograph by Joyce Culver)

Some critics were disappointed to see a lack of more modern LGBT clothing, especially those of celebrities, but choosing not to include one of Ellen Degeneres’ suits or Johnny Weir’s flamboyant skating costumes was wise on the curators’ parts. Not only because it focused the exhibition on the history of the subject, removing most of the cheapening spectacle of Smithsonian-cum-Madame Tussaud’s celebrity artifice, but also because contemporary queer style, especially in the celebrity sector, is not all that daring or interesting. Like the nuptial outfits that ended the exhibition, sticking costumes from Modern Family would have had a rapaciously antithetical effect on the higher points in the show.

Dressing oneself — literally — in the politics of difference is at the core of the symbiotic relationship between clothing and queerness, a fascinating and provocative concept that is chipping away as more and more LGBT people conform into the mainstream. There are still leathermen and club kids, naturally, but their styles are being superseded or marginalized (as, I suppose, they frequently were) as we‘re fed a new image of what it is to be gay, which is, unsurprisingly enough, looking straight.

A Queer History of Fashion: From Closet to Catwalk continues at The Museum at FIT (227 W 27th Street, Chelsea, Manhattan) through January 4, 2014.

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  • etseq

    Can this article be anymore pretentious and condescending? I get it – you think oppression and exclusion was so hip and equality is for straights. Easy for you to say in 2013 – if you honestly think being defined as deviant, marginalized, and transgressive is what makes you really gay (drop the pretentious queer theory – you aren’t impressing anyone), then it seems you have truly internalized society’s homophobia. Assimilation isn’t the enemy – abjection is. Deviance isn’t a virtue – the goal of equality to change society so that we are no longer viewed as deviant.

    • Mitchell

      Speak for yourself. Elsewhere, you said “Amen!” to my equating “the closet” with hypocrisy — but now, let me add a little context….

      I never “came out” because I never was in a closet in the first place: hypocrisy simply was antithetical to the values with which I was raised in a liberal New York Jewish family. I’m 63, and my late adolescence was in the era of the counterculture, when I was “experimenting” with all sorts of conventionally-transgressive behavior, and same-sex relations were (to me) in a similar category to smoking pot.

      For that matter, I never felt I was “born this way”: my choice of sexual liaisons was always a choice — a choice I had a right to make, and was proud of as my own. I don’t know whether I’d feel this way if I were a young man today, but that’s what I experienced growing up in a different day and age.

      For some gay people, transgression remains a fetish of sorts, and gay rights is a matter of personal freedom rather than a mainstream, “equality” agenda.

      In short, regarding your remark about internalized homophoibia: I think you’re overgeneralizing. Think about it.

      • etseq

        I have thought about these matters greatly over the last 40 years – unlike you, I grew up in a small town in south Georgia that was dominated by evangelical christianity. I was raised by a single mom who struggled to support us on a meager salary and the rare child support check. I knew I was gay from an early age but I was never ashamed for whatever reason. I was lucky enough that I was able to get a scholarship for college where I immediately came out of the closet and haven’t looked back since. I love being gay and I take pride in saying that its been the defining factor of my life, both sexually and politically. Your experience is very different from mine – not better or worse just different. I can respect differences so long as people are being authentic. The closet and repression aren’t authentic but beyond that, whatever floats your boat.

        Look, I get your point and transgression is great for those who want to define themselves as counter-cultural. The hippie movement was an interesting experiment and I am sure it was fun for those who had the privilege to drop out of conventional society that was falling apart. What I object to is the disdain radicals have for the vast majority of us gays who do believe in equality and have fought hard to make it a reality for everyone, including the radicals. They benefit from the reduction in homophobia and increase in personal freedom that are all part of political equality.

        And for that matter, it’s great that you are so enlightened that you feel you chose to be gay. But that is not the experience of the vast majority of gay people and it is incredible condescending for you to tell them that they are basically being wimps for telling the truth about their life. For those gay kids not growing up in liberal middle class new york families, they dont have the luxury you do to “construct your own reality” – they have to live in the real world.

        So, thanks for your story and I’m glad you are happy with your life. I’m obviously not the demographic of this website and in retrospect my comment wasn’t respectful and seems harsh. C’est la vie…

        • Mitchell

          Don’t confuse me with the author of the above article, or with ideologues like Matt Bernstein Sycamore or even Judith Butler. That isn’t my demographic, either.

          I merely wrote, “That’s what I experienced growing up in a different day and age. (Then again, ‘I can’t help it, I was born this way’ has always seemed far too apologtic — but again, that’s just me.)”

          No sarcasm was intended, unlike your snarky comment, “It’s great that you are so enlightened that you feel you chose to be gay.” (I detect more than a little jealousy of the privilege that ostensibly made this possible for me — though in reality, I scrounged much of my life rather than compromise. (For more on this, see http://www.ebar.com/news/article.php?sec=news&article=1253 ).

          For that matter, I even wrote, “I don’t know whether I’d feel this way if I were a young man today”: without the countercultural context, I don’t know how I’d have experienced my (late-)emerging sexuality.

          Nonetheless, the mere notion that sexual orientation might be experienced as a choice evidently seems threatening to you. I have no problem with “people telling the truth (as they experience it)” — nor should you.

          • etseq

            Wow – projection much? You seem to have this need to impress strangers with your own exceptionalism. Your whole post-gay schtick of “I was never in the closet, being gay is like smoking pot, my sexuality is better than yours” I guess is supposed to impress me. Having been in college at the height of Queer Theory, it just reads like a post-structuralist identity construction narrative without the jargon, which is straight out of Butler’s Gender Trouble. I’ll take your word that you find Butler silly – I know I do – but you may have more in common with her than you realize.

            After lecturing me on not presuming to judge others, you then accuse me of being both jealous and threatened by you. To illustrate that you weren’t privileged, you ink to a story where you chastised Mcgreevy for being a hypocrite unlike you who so brave to come out and “paid a price for it” and “what does he have to say to you” I’m not sure what the point of linking to that contretemps was. Am I to be impressed that you scored a cheap shot against a corrupt, sleazy politician? Or that you were mentioned in a local gay rag? I’m not sure what that proves except you obviously think very highly of yourself and you have no qualms about being rude in public forums. And you have a habit of telling strangers just how much of a special snowflake you are.

            Honestly, I was trying to be polite to you and find some common ground. But this has devolved into some sort of pissing match, I’m sure we are both at fault to some degree but you started this when you replied to a comment I made about an article online in which you admonished me for being judgmental, which I now realize is some sort of zen concern trolling. Well played sir!

            It’s been fun but this could go on forever. Thanks for the flashback to my college years and the endless clashes with the radical queers who had perfected the art of Queer condescension,.

          • etseq

            Ok I just googled you and now I know better than to engage you. When a “queer” claims to speak for all gay people and tells them they are dupes for seeking equality rights and then actually says this:

            “Homosexual relationships don’t create children, nor do they need to do so (nor do they need to be called “marriages”) to be valid relationships. While heterosexual marriages don’t always create children either, marriage as an institution exists as a corollary of the fact that children are created as a consequence of the consummation of heterosexual unions. That is why — and it’s the only reason why — pairing or coupling is a specific “right” delineated as “marriage” and considered a unique sort of (specifically heterosexual) bond.” http://www.bilerico.com/2009/06/whose_equality.php

            ….which could have literally come out of the mouth of Maggie Gallagher, Robbie George, or any other natural law bigot., then they are no better than Religious Right. In fact, they are worse – like judas and Brutus.

            Your fit right in with those wannabe radicals and self-loathing anti-equality drama queens at Bilerico.

            Talk about elitist and judgmental. You say I am imposing my views of gayness on to others. Well, you’ve got me beat. You actually want to take away rights from other gays just because you aren’t interested in them.

            No wonder you are so bitter – the entire gay rights movement failed to see the wisdom in your evolved and superior vision of being gay. Even though you view us a boring sell outs, you will still benefit from the progress we make. You may not care for marriage but at least you will have that option. Shame your goals weren’t as inclusive.

            “We should simply stop letting others and their terms define us, and cherish the value of our status as outsiders.” Yea who is the one defining terms for all of us – that would be you.

            “I simply view myself as existing outside that matrix (except in the sense that the mother and father who created me loved me very much). I don’t need any further “rights” to consider myself an equal (and fully-valid) human being.”

            Well isn’t that precious – someone give you a gold star.

            This just confirms my original point in the first comment that this yearning for oppression and exile from society to the point that you would literally deprive other gays of rights is the definition of self-loathing. It’s on par with closeted politicians who live an underground gay life but votes against gay rights in public. It’s all about your selfish desires.

          • Mitchell

            Now who’s trolling? It’s true that I don’t buy into the current “party line” about gender politics, but the allegation that I seek to deny people their rights is hogwash — in fact, it’s a downright smear (not to mention also a resort to character assassination and name-calling).

            You took my remarks about transgenderism out of context; the above-quoted passage goes on to say, “I believe transgendered people, however self-deluded, are (along with their detractors) entitled to self-expression, and that ultimately, they desperately need job protection.”

            As for marriage and families (and Vladimir Putin’s claim that gay people are an impediment to Rusaian population growth), I’ve posted the following elsewhere :

            “I’ve been a gay activist all my life (and will likely get some flak for this posting from many of my friends), but I’ve always been put off by the claim that gay couples are ‘having’ children. Unless there’s been a major change (that I don’t know about) in reproductive biology, it simply isn’t true. 

We may be raising children we’ve adopted [in actuality, or in effect] — and thereby providing a valuable service to society, which is rife with failed parenting (and unwanted children heedlessly created) by heterosexuals — but we aren’t breeding.

            

”None of this justifies Putin’s repugnant policies, of course. We’re providing a crucial service not only by raising children in loving families, but also by doing so in a manner that doesn’t add to the burden of overpopulation. Putin’s professed desire for population growth is just another symptom of chauvinism, and ought to be condemned on that basis.”

            I have no problem with giving all people the right to marry, nor (obviously) with gay people forming the loving families i’ve described. I deeply resent the allegation that I do.

            At the same time, I don’t think we need to advance our agenda by conflating wishful thinking with reality. Our rights to personal freedom (and choice) don’t exclude the right to couple; they go beyond it.

            This isn’t a matter of some abstruse sort of queer theory (or, for that matter, of leftist politics); it’s a matter of having been able to recognize sexuality in the context of an entire culture that saw itself as striving for something called, quite simply, “free love.” Those are the shoulders you’re building on.

            Got a problem with that?

          • etseq

            Now you are backtracking. In that Bilerico article and in several letters to the editor and opeds in the BAR, you made it clear that you did not support a right to same sex marriage because a) you did not think it necessary and u preferred an alternative polygamous civil union. b) you claimed marriage was exclusively for procreation and that the only reason it was a right was that it was unique to heterosexuals.

            That argument is just factually wrong and it certainly does not reflect american law. You were making making a sociological argument that was descriptive but then you imposed a normative meaning on top of it. That is, just because marriage had been defined one way in the past does not mean it cannot change. Marriage used to involve the ownership of the wife by the husband, the right to rape the wife, the right to all her property and wages, etc. All that has gradually changed to where marriage is basically a contractual companionate model.

            You certainly did not say that article that you favored gays getting married – you were vehemently against it. You insisted on the creation of a separate civil union, which is your preference but is viewed by most of us a separate but not-equal arrangement. So, now you are fudging what you were quite vehemently against. And no, you were not stating a personal preference in that article, you were insisting that gays did not have a right to marriage because marriage was for procreation. Now, how is that different from what the Catholic Bishops say?

            Finally, what in the hell do you mean by “conflating wishful thinking with reality”? You seem to be one doing that with your dream polygamous civil unions -.in what universe do you live where you think any legislature would pass that sort of law?

            And you are still not telling the truth about trans rights. That statement you made about them being mislabeled cheese was incredibly demeaning and offensive. You seem to be some sort of gender essentialist, which is an off view for a gay man to hold.

            And I have just figured out that you are a NAMBLA supporter – that FBI article was written vaguely enough to not reveal your position but its clear to me now what that position is. Yes you are from an entirely different generation and school of thought about homosexuality and society. You do indeed want liberation and revolution that is utopian and unrealistic considering human nature. Free love was tried in the late 60s and 70s in the commune movement and it was a complete disaster. Jealously will always create barriers that leads to conflict. Also, hierarchies form no matter how hard the people tried to be egalitarian, Alpha males began to dominate the others and they eventually collapsed.

          • Mitchell

            It’s no use: all ad hominems, whether substantiated or otherwise.

            FWIW, I’m not a “NAMBLA supporter”; unlike NAMBLA, I don’t call for the elimination of all age-of-consent laws, though I believe they’re abused in some instances, and should be reformed. Beyond that, I haven’t the time to elaborate on that here. In any event, your purpose was not to initiate a meaningful discussion, but to engage in character assassination — ad hominem, guilt by association, etc.

            I’

            Meanwhile, you’ve aptly summed up your view of human nature: “Jealously will always create barriers that lead to conflict. Also, hierarchies form no matter how hard the people tried to be egalitarian, Alpha males began to dominate the others…”

          • etseq

            Transphobic asshole:

            A man on hormones who’s had his penis surgically turned inside-out is a woman only in the same sense that American cheese is cheese. The only difference (evident to anyone who’s ever read the description on a package of American cheese) is that American cheese is subject to truth-in-labeling. (To top off the analogy, are we now expected to refer to all non-pasteurized-process product as “cis-cheese”?)

            http://www.sfbaytimes.com/?sec=article&article_id=7120

          • http://hragv.com Hrag Vartanian

            Please refrain from calling others names. That is not accepted in the comments.

          • etseq

            You have a transphobic nambla supporter spewing his nonsense on your blog and when I call him out, you finally step in to rebuke me for using a naughty word. Interesting approach to comment moderation

          • http://hragv.com Hrag Vartanian

            You should read the commenting policy.

          • etseq

            Nah – not worth my time and effort. But continue enforcing trivial etiquette while ignoring the actual offensive things, like ridiculing transgender people as having fake genitals. Stay classy!

          • Mitchell

            You continue with ad hominems as a pretext for attempting to silence someone who happens to disagree with you (and queer conventional wisdom).

            That’s out-of-bounds in any event, but doubly so when the implicit allegations are untrue.

            I’ve dealt with the “NAMBLA-supporter” smear in another comment below.

            As for “transphobic,” that’s merely a pejorative characterization of my position. I was contending that a post-op transexual is a synthetically-gendered construction, just as American cheese is a synthetic product that imitates real cheese — and is required to be labelled as such. Others may disagree; in fact, I realize that my view is not necessarily a popular one — but that doesn’t legitimize an ad hominem attack. (Note, mean-while [pun intended], that I didn’t single out anyone and subject them to name-calling.)

            As for marriage, while it’s true that I dissented from the community’s push for same-sex marriage (and have even contended that it implicitly redefines marriage, along with a host of biologically-defined family relationships, out to and including terms like “aunt,” “uncle,” “cousin,” etc.), I have never been opposed to allowing its legality. Saying I’m against same-sex marriage is a far cry from the reality, which is that I felt it was a cause for which the community was misguided in funneling so many of our precious resources.

            For an interesting and important bit of history regarding this, I recommend the following video, especially starting at the 40-minute point:

            Again, however, my view on marriage ultimately merely provided yet another pretext for name-calling, another “gotcha” in an attempt at delegitimization and character assassination.

            I may be emphatic (even vehement) in my arguments, but I’ve never resorted to ad hominem attacks.

            Can’t you see that this isn’t merely a matter of using a “naughty word”?

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