The Museum at FIT’s A Queer History of Fashion: From the Closet to the Catwalk is at the top of my list of exhibitions to see in 2013. This exhibition is groundbreaking as it is the first to explore the pivotal role that LGBTQ individuals played in fashion for over the past 300 years. The exhibition’s co-curator Fred Dennis comments that it “is about honoring the gay and lesbian designers of the past and present.” The exhibition not only highlights the significant contributions to fashion by gay and lesbian designers, but also illuminates the important role that fashion and style have had in giving the LGBT community a voice.
A Queer History of Fashion begins with frilly, ornate three-piece suits from late eighteenth-century France that were infamously worn by cross-dressing “mollies,” foppish “macaronis,” and “men milliners.” With their ruffled cravats and satin frock coats, these eighteenth-century men were subverting conventional sex and gender roles.
My personal favorites were the 20th century garçonne looks that challenged sex and gender taboos. The garçonne style was associated with a flapper who flaunted her “unconventional” dress and behaviors. La garçonne or the flapper transgressed the boundaries of the “proper lady,” with her rising hemlines and her “debaucherous” acts of smoking and drinking without a chaperone. The exhibition has costumes from the 1936 film adaptation of the novel La Garçonne. The costumes of La Garçonne’s emancipated wife, Marie Bell, who is seduced into a lesbian affair, reject traditional notions of femininity.
The exhibition’s gender-bending designs of the early twentieth century also includes Marlene Dietrich’s tuxedo that she notoriously wore in the film Morocco. The man’s tailcoat that Dietrich wore in the scene in which she kisses another woman flies in the face of conventional sexual morality. Dietrich’s men’s-inspired evening wear attire contributed to high fashion opening its doors to lesbian style clothing.
For instance, the exhibition points out that Yves Saint Laurent’s stunning 1982 Le Smoking was inspired by Dietrich’s tuxedo from the 1930’s film. Yves Saint Laurent’s iconic tuxedo was part of the second half of the exhibition that focuses on pieces that explicitly deconstructed gender norms. This second half incorporated Jean Paul Gaultier’s skirts for men with other gender-bending pieces that deliberately destabilized the traditional gender system. Also included in the second part of the exhibition was the evolved lesbian style of the Post-Stonewall era that transitioned from the butch-femme stereotype into an androgynous, anti-fashion style. This post-Stonewall style often alluded to subcultures and referenced movements such as the punk movement. The second half also showed proletarian men’s-inspired garments including work boots, plaid shirts, and overalls that many feminists wore in rejection of capitalism and patriarchy.
However, A Queer History of Fashion does not only showcase the gender-defying designs, but also exposes the inequality and hardships that the LGBT community faced over the years. The exhibition comments on Coco Chanel’s homophobic sentiments towards Christian Dior’s New Look and Cristobal Balenciaga’s Velasquez dresses. The exhibition displays Coco’s comment to Franco Zeffirelli: “Look at them! Fool’s dressed by queens living out their fantasies!”
A large portion of the exhibition is devoted to revealing the discrimination that gay, lesbian, and bisexual designers faced. The exhibition depicts how many gay designers were accused of caricaturing femininity through their designs for women. Dior’s New Look, which is on view at the exhibition, was seen during the 1950’s as an archaic, constraining, and frivolous feminine style with its crinolines, Merry Widows, and padded bust lines in comparison to Claire McCardell’s loose-fitting, Greek-inspired Monastic and Popover dresses made of cotton. The exhibition also notes how during the early twentieth century many gays gravitated towards a discreet and passive style to not “provoke” a homophobic society. It was not until the 1960’s that gays began to embrace unisex styles such as caftans. In addition to displaying several caftan designs, the exhibition notes how individuals like Rudi Gernreich, a founding member of the pioneering gay liberation group the Mattachine Society, integrated a more openly gay look with “mod” menswear styles.
A Queer History of Fashion conveys the strong similarities between the LGBT community and fashion as both care deeply about self-expression. Moreover, the exhibition unveils that fashion for the LGBT community is a means of recognition, power, and sexual freedom.