“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.
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.
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.
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.
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.