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August 22 2014

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Glitter and Be Gay? Addressing the LGBT Influence in Fashion

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Calvin Klein AdAs industries go, fashion may be the least closeted there is: No one can deny the massive impact made by men and women who identify as gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered in the history of fashion and costume. Fashion historian Valerie Steele addresses the contributions made by LGBT people in a new exhibition, A Queer History of Fashion: From the Closet to the Catwalk, opening this week at the Museum at F.I.T. It includes pieces ranging from designs by Jean Paul Gaultier and Gianni Versace to Edwardian suits and nineteenth-century finery; clothing made by gays and for gays; as well as those items and styles co-opted and fetishized by gay audiences, and from gay audiences. (See, for example, Versace’s adaptation of leather fetish regalia into his women’s haute couture.)

As the exhibition makes clear—not that it wasn’t out, as it were, already—the gay contribution to fashion is beyond doubt. The question that’s much harder to answer is why. Shortly after the show was announced last year, I sat down with Steele, who co-curated the exhibit with Fred Dennis, to try to tease out the curious correlation and connection between gayness, politics, fashion, and style.

It goes without saying—but let’s say it—that many, many fashion designers and professionals are gay. Is gayness fashion’s default position?

I don’t know if it’s the default position, because there are heterosexual men, and there are women of all different sexualities, straight, gay, and bi, in fashion—though fewer of them have come out than gay men. But I think it’s not just a stereotype to say that there’s a lot of interest in fashion and style among a lot of gay men. What we’re interested in doing with Queer History is, if you can get beyond saying it’s just a stereotype, maybe you can start exploring why it might be the case that there’s this interest in fashion and style. You’re not pathologizing it; for one thing, most people like fashion now. You could explore, is there a kind of gay sensibility that would be drawn to issues of style and fashion?

And is there?
We tend to think yes. But we think there’s not one gay aesthetic, but at least a couple of different gay aesthetics. Several, probably: One that would tend to be more idealizing, and the other that would be more disruptive and gender-fuck.

But that idealizing aesthetic could be a kind of misogyny, no? You have male designers creating designs for women’s bodies that aren’t necessarily forgiving, or even possible…
If you go online, this is the vox pop: Do gay men hate women? You saw that [first] in the fifties, when you had all these very homophobic commentators, like the psychiatrist Bergler, who said that gay men hate women and therefore they make weird clothes for them to wear. But the point is, gay men have made all different types of clothes. It’s not just that they like girls to look like teenage boys, or they like girls to look like a caricature of women. It’s all different styles. And you find that straight men and women of different sexual persuasions also doing those, too. It’s much more related to their individual aesthetic and their time period than it is to their sexual orientations. So I think you have to confront that. Some people who don’t like fashion are going to say that it’s gay men making things for putatively straight women. But I think you can’t be held back by homophobic complaints. I think it’s more important to try and explore where things might lead you and not be constrained by irrational homophobia—and irrational fashion phobia, too.

Which go hand in hand.
Which often do go hand in hand.

Where does this connection between gay men and fashion come from?
I think it’s partly a kind of self-selection early on that gay boys, maybe before they know they’re gay, are interested often in artistic pursuits. “Artistic” was always a kind of euphemism for being gay. Lots of gay people talk about, “When I was four, I was telling my mother how to dress. When I was four, I was doing elaborate drawings of ladies’ costumes.” That’s before you have much of a sexual identity, but there’s already possibly something there that’s attractive about artistic and transformative fields like fashion. Fashion is about artifice and transformation and fantasy and a certain idea of beauty. I think it’s intrinsically very appealing to a lot of people, and it may just be that, at least in certain cultures—and there’s been so little cross-cultural work done, it’s hard to tell—that may be something that’s part of a gay male sensibility.

Butch Queens in Chanel

It’s interesting, because it seems that this gayness persists in American fashion and European fashion. But it’s quite different in, say, Japanese fashion.
Japanese fashion is interesting; you see more heterosexual men there. Whether that has something to do with fashion not being stereotyped as much as a female field in Japan…so far there’s been so little research done, it’s hard to tell. I know gay male designers in India, and Japan, and Russia, despite the incredible homophobia in Russia. I was talking to a lawyer about that. With all the new laws against making homosexual propaganda in Russia, he was talking to a young Russian designer and he said, “Forgive me for asking this, but are you gay?” The guy looked at him and said, “Is the Pope Catholic? Of course, I’m gay—I’m a fashion designer!”

So do you see gay male designers adapting gay culture into their clothes?
In totally different ways, and some of them not at all. You do find some of the younger, punkier designers who have really picked up on uniforms and leather. You saw John Bartlett do it for menswear, you saw Versace do it for menswear and womenswear. You had the whole leather-sex community in the seventies, and then twenty years later you had Versace doing leather ball gowns. And joking at the time, saying, “Ten years ago I tried to do this and they turned the lights up on me. They said this looks like a leather bar. Now it’s all socialites in leather.” Sometimes it’s much more subtle. You saw the whole butch influence move into menswear really gradually. People didn’t perceive it as being gay, even though I think it was really coming out of a gay look, which was emerging. Gay men were into a butch look before straight men were.

Do you think there’s an inherent distrust of straight designers? Do we prefer our fashion designers, if not flaming, at least gay?
I think there’s considerable evidence that at least at certain periods, people have felt more comfortable with the idea of male designers being gay. Back in the fifties, which was for the most part a very homophobic age, that’s the period when you first started seeing a lot of pretty obviously gay male designers coming out. I think Life magazine had a big thing on “that friend of your wife’s named Dior.” The subtext, I think, was that it was OK that your wife was OK with Dior, who was fitting her, because he was gay. Then you had someone like Chanel, who, God knows, in the twenties and thirties, hated all her competitors who were women, like Vionnet and Schiaparelli. Suddenly she’s positioning herself as “I’m a woman defending you against all these pederasts”—her word—”who are making all these clothes you can’t move in.” But she was just tailoring her discourse depending on who her enemies were.

But times have changed, and a designer no longer fits you personally—all but the luckiest few head for the boutique or the department store. Does gayness affect the commerce side of fashion as well as the artistic side?
I think in some ways it’s been menswear designers who have been more closeted about being gay than womenswear designers, because female clients were perfectly happy with the idea of having an imaginary gay best friend who would dress them. Even though they mostly never met the designers, so it’s purely hypothetical; it’s not like the old days of the couture, where Dior really was fitting the dress on you. Now you’re just going into a store and buying it; it doesn’t really make any difference what sexuality the designer is from the client’s point of view.

But it still has an impact?
I don’t know if it has an impact on the client so much as gay men may be self-selectively entering the fashion industry more than others. Just like in certain periods, like the twenties and thirties, women entered the fashion industry in peak numbers. It was an era of the New Woman and the flapper. Everybody kind of thought, Who better to dress the New Woman than other women? At the same time, other jobs were closed to them. They flooded into this to the point that male designers like Patou were saying that you can be a man and be a designer, too. After World War II, when it was so gender-stereotyped, a lot of people assumed, who better to dress a woman than a man, who will know what other men want her to look like. Even though it was a gay man—he would still know what she should look like. Then women designers were put in the position saying, What about Chanel and Vionnet and all those people in the twenties and thirties? They were good, too.

Jean Paul Gaultier

We’re now in a place where there’s no overriding expectation that men in fashion will be straight. There’s none of this (closeted) men-dressing-women-for-other-men. So how do you account for the mass influx of gay men into fashion in the last twenty to thirty years?
For one thing, I think it’s been longer than that. I think that it’s definitely been at least sixty or seventy years. And so partly what you’re seeing is what lawyers think of in terms of precedent—it’s a comfortable place to be and to work if you’re gay. You’ll meet other people who are gay, and you can be accepted. You can be a little bit different and it’s fine; you can be a lot different and it’s fine. You can be Marc Jacobs in fashion! Probably in the car industry it’d be harder to be a Marc Jacobs personality. I think it’s a welcoming environment, and I think that as much as anything, it has made it an encouraging place for gay men as well as lesbians and bisexuals to work.

How has gayness in fashion evolved over the past decades?
One of the first things that’s different is the degree of being discreet. Closeted is a problematic term, because the closet was by no means a hard and fast concept. There was plenty of acceptance and awareness of gayness in the twenties and thirties, which got pushed back in the forties and fifties, but people tended to have to be very discreet. Someone like Dior was very much afraid that his mother would find out. He had a long-term boyfriend and other boyfriends, but only a small number of people were allowed—officially—to know. That started to change from the seventies on, because of sexual liberation and gay liberation, although the French and the Italians still tend to be more discreet. Marriage is not unheard, too, among gay or bisexual designers—I mean marriage to a woman. But on the whole, acceptance is really growing. Having a male spouse has become for some gay observers a bourgeois thing. That’s being homosexual in a way that everybody except the evangelical right wing finds acceptable.

And gay partnerships—in life and in business—have been the cornerstones of a lot of the big fashion successes of the last forty or fifty years: YSL and Bergé, Armani and Galeotti, Giammetti and Valentino—
That, of course, is kind of the ideal. Every designer should have that—just like every artist should have it, because it’s not fair to expect them to be the businessperson, too. But it’s very rare for people to have that luck. In the case of the high-profile pairings that you mentioned, they had the incredible luck of having started out with a lover who became a kind of longtime friend-spouse in a sense, whether or not they ever legally were married. It was like a marriage, even if they might subsequently have affairs with other people or indeed go off and live with someone else, it continued as a quasi-marital-plus-business relationship. It’s an added plus. It means there’s someone who’s really deeply committed to you and your success, and you can’t pay someone enough for that.

Do you think we’ll see the influx of gay men into fashion continue? Or with the growing acceptance of gayness in culture overall, will gay men’s involvement plateau?
That’s interesting, that question of whether there will continue to be gay culture or something that’s specifically gay. The more you get acceptance—will that then end gay culture? I don’t think so, not for the foreseeable future. If only for the bad reason that there’s still so much prejudice around. In New York, we are happy and lucky to be able to live in a little bubble where it’s perfectly OK and nobody really cares, it’s fine. But there’s still so much hatred and prejudice in the world at large.

So does fashion become a kind of mecca of acceptance the way that New York would be, or Paris or London?
I think that’s a super-important point. I think that just like London or New York is a mecca, I think fashion has been and continues to be a really welcoming world for LGBT people.

Do you think, because of that, fashion has a gay agenda?
What do you mean by that?

Is it possible that fashion is actively communicating some or other gay message? Does it become a platform through which gay issues speak more loudly than, say, certain other issues—racial equality or women’s rights?
I think you certainly have a lot of people who would feel very strongly that acceptance and equality for gay people is high on their personal agenda, and you certainly see that in terms of political organizing in the gay community, sure. In terms of race, it’s interesting. You’ve now gotten a lot of gay Asian designers, as well as some straight Asian designers. Those black designers who have been around, the male ones have been mostly gay, but there haven’t been that many black designers in recent years in the U.S. who have been visible figures. I don’t know the reason for that. You would think that there would be a greater racial diversity in the fashion world, and not just black, but more Hispanic and so on. So I don’t quite understand that. Although, of course, to be in fashion, to be successful in fashion, is often an expensive proposition, so that may be where race is intersecting with class.

The gay critic David Halperin recently said that gay sex is no longer threateningly scandalous, but gay culture is. What do you make of that?
I think what he’s talking about is that gay sex is no longer threatening to the gay community. But certain aspects of gay culture are still found to be shameful and, in some way, to be kept a secret.

Would you count fashion among those?
I think probably there are some gay people who’d prefer…. As he points out in his book, there’s an important political agenda. The more you can convince homophobic straight people [that gays] are really just like “us” except for what they do in the bedroom, and that’s none of your business, then [they] can be accepted. But if you point out that they’re different in certain ways, that might be perceived as more threatening. So if gay people are getting married, and gay people are doctors and lawyers and schoolteachers—well, maybe you don’t emphasize schoolteachers—that’s good. But if you think of them all being very histrionic fashion designers…

That’s a stereotype even some gay men themselves could conceivably want to shy away from. Would the clones of the seventies be pleased to find themselves included in a show like yours, that’s celebratory of the gay influence? Or some designers you might include, who would rather not be included?
Entirely possible, partly because of the legitimate reason that people don’t want to be reduced to one aspect of their identity. Especially in terms of designers or artists, you want to be appreciated for your artistry and your design ability. You might not want to be lumped in. Just like a lot of women artists didn’t want to be in art shows that were just women.

Photos: Calvin Klein Billboard by Andy Levin; Courtesy of the Museum at F.I.T.

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