Plunging necklines and flowing ball gowns, slim stiletto heels and glittery pink ruffles. . .
Femme – or effeminate – dress characterizes female fashion in the public eye. On runways and red carpets alike, women have historically worn glitzy dresses with figure-flattering silhouettes, and sky-high heels, which all represent culturally defined femininity. Most often by a woman’s side stands a man in a three-piece tux. His slim pants skim over his legs and the smooth lapels lay flat against his chest.
Heteronormativity has served an important, long standing role in American culture, infiltrating not only the fashion world, but all facets of society. Children grow up socialized to their respective pink or blue; skirts are reserved for girls and pants with t-shirts are marketed towards boys.
In adulthood, gendered fashion stereotypes drive consumers to purchase styles that enhance their gender. Women are sold on the idea of pushup bras, while men get caught on athletic wear and rugged jeans. Clothing thus becomes a liaison for the individual to embody an “ideal” presentation of gender which perpetuates the stark masculine vs. feminine binary.
And yet, the fashion world has always been dominated by queer voices. From Gianni Versace to Yves Saint Laurent to Alexander McQueen and Michael Kors, the most prominent luxury designers over the past century have primarily been gay men. Beyond luxury designers, behind-the-scene roles in the fashion industry, from editorial to advertising, are often also members of the LGBTQIA+ community.
Here lies the greatest issue: The Fashion industry, while perpetuating styles which preserve a gender binary, is historically queer.
Recently, the 2020 Spring Menswear shows were scheduled to overtake London for their seasonal fashion week. Faced with the challenges of COVID-19, a number of designers took the opportunity to not only transform their in person shows to virtual ones, but also to replace their traditional menswear with collections that included more androgynous and gender fluid designs. In a reflection of broader awareness for queer folks, brands express concern that the binary system of designing clothes is antiquated.
Fashion has always been a place to perform one’s identity. One of the first big movements in queer fashion is that of Butch lesbian culture which emerged from a long history of gay women cross dressing in the 1950’s. Originally spurred by women who embodied the attitude of a ‘rebel without a cause’, the movement sought to evade normative female identity. The name, Butch, is a reclaiming of the slang word for ‘tough kid’, or butcher. Butch culture enabled women in the 50’s, 60’s, and 70’s to do things like open bars and express themselves in a robust culture, often defined in terms of traditional masculinity.
Wearing big t-shirts, jeans, keys and chains, Butch lesbians signal who they are to femme (effeminate) women and other people in the community.
In 1990, Judith Butler wrote “Gender Trouble”, in which she defined gender and sexuality as constructed and performative. What it means to be masculine or feminine is ever changing, as is the styles of dress that correlate to different ideals. For example, bell bottoms worn on men in the 70’s later became popular for women in the early 2000’s.
Though, as trends change, the binary remains because gendered ideology allows humans to know and connect with one another.
“I used to be a lot more performative of my gender when I wasn’t out,” 20 year old, Nora Della Ferra, a senior from Brooklyn studying at Sarah Lawrence College said. “I used fashion in general to be performative. I wore big hats and red lipstick. I wasn’t even concerned with how it made me look gender wise, but dressing femme was a way for me to hide behind costumey outfits.”
Since graduating high school, she has evolved her style, “Now, I don’t dress as feminine because I want people to know that I am gay. Sometimes it contradicts with me wanting to be femme. I won’t wear a sundress even if it’s beautiful because I want people to know that I am gay.”
Similarly, Ava Brennan, a Junior from Chicago who studies at Sarah Lawrence also feels most herself while wearing the clothes that reflect how she feels.
“My clothes are definitely an expression of my sexuality often, which can change very rapidly and fully from day to day. Often I desire to look more androgynous, sometimes as an expression of masculinity but mostly because I feel like I can shed my notions of femininity and attractiveness and become more me when I wear conventionally male clothes!”
Myles Lowrie- Otter, a senior at Sarah Lawrence College living in Portland says that clothing for them has been a way to celebrate being trans, and to communicate with others. After their chest reconstruction, they recall a binder and a button down tee that made them feel more connected with their masculinity.
Myles acknowledges that dressing for one’s identity can be challenging, “Some days it does get me down in terms of going to choose clothes and I don’t really know how I can communicate how I feel. . . . But then the next day it’s like I can’t choose between all of these different pants because on that day I’m really wanting to wear a skinny leg . . . I just shaved my face so I look really feminine and there’s just so many circumstances, it’s not ever like just one thing.”
Yet, They acknowledge that fashion is not purely a form of art or expression, and the symbolic aspects of dress as a language do not present the full picture of the fashion industry. It would be nice to think of fashion as a safe space for queer folk, although that may not be the case.
Some brands have gotten away with capitalizing on queer culture in ways that disrespect the oppression the queer community faces. Rainbow flags have somewhat turned Pride into its own brand. Myles remembers spending their 16th birthday in San Francisco for pride, and seeing a t-shirt in the window of one of the shops they passed downtown.
“It was all white with milk on the pocket. This is a really distasteful and inappropriate merchandise like that’s like taking the Harvey Milk Legacy story and name his assassination and taking that and reducing it down to milk on a t-shirt during Pride that to me feels like the epitome of like brand b******* “, said Myles.
It is difficult to celebrate queer fashion when it feels like part of a marketing stunt.
As people become more scrutinizing of companies’ racial policies, many are finding that brands engage in a great deal of performative activism. The same companies that sell pride flags and rainbow-clad clothing for the month of June often also discriminate against their LGBTQIA+ employees, or have funding tied to anti-LGBTQIA+ legislation.
Urban Outfitters, a popular indie clothing brand has a history of selling Pride related merchandise. However, in 2008 the company mysteriously pulled a shirt from their shelves with “I Support Same-Sex Marriage” printed on the front. Reporters found that founder and Chairman, Richard Hayne has a history of conservative views and of opposing gay marriage policy.
Not only is it a problem that companies use Pride as a marketing gimmick, but now companies are targeting a gender neutral audience by claiming to represent them.
It appears that there is some political progress being made for the LGBTQIA+ community. Just this month, the Supreme Court ruled against discrimination based on sex in the workplace.
More brands are beginning to market themselves as gender neutral, and in recent years, smaller and big name companies have started releasing unisex or androgynous fashion lines that reflect the growing movement.
When brands release clothing aimed at the removal of gender, queerness becomes diluted.
Trans and nonbinary folks intentionally utilize cis trends to perform their authentic, nonbinary identity. The popularization of nonconforming brands and and gender neutral trends commodifies the queer fashion experience. Myles points out that a cis woman wearing boyfriend jeans and a loose tee shirt is very different from a Butch lesbian who only feels truly themselves in looser, baggier clothing.
Gender neutral fashion thus negates the progressive nature of its intention. Queerness is not a trend, reduced to baggy, amorphous clothing. While gender nonconforming brands and designers provide options for people in the queer community, and destigmatize the rejection of binaried fashion ideas, they miss the mark when it comes to activism.
And, while it may seem counterintuitive in a market saturated with brands who market themselves for queer people that reject gendered trends in clothing, the heart of queer fashion is genderfluid expression.
Queer fashion is just fashion in its truest form. To designate fashion to a gender is complicated. It at once makes queer bodies visible and validated, while at the same time contributes to cis gendered standards, much of which feels like a sentiment from the past. Celebrities like Jaden Smith, and Janelle Monae now walk the runway in completely queer outfits. A suit on a woman is as normal as a dress. Myles notes that when passing another effeminately dressed male on the street there is a nod of solidarity. To feel human is to feel seen and heard. If fashion can be the vehicle for political action, then perhaps, that is its greatest power.
If you liked this article, check out our podcast episodes: Charlotte Posner – The Art of Business and Sara Hunterand Katani Sumner – Build your Racial Sensitivity