“A Queer History of Fashion” Gives Us Crossdressers, Dandies, and Haute Couture

The day after Lincoln Center brings Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week to a close, the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT) in New York City opens its doors to “A Queer History of Fashion: From the Closet to the Catwalk,” September 13, 2013, through January 4, 2014.

This groundbreaking exhibition, for which a companion text is in production at Yale University Press, will feature approximately one hundred ensembles, from 18th century menswear to 21st century haute couture.

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In addition to the exhibit, FIT will host a two-day symposium (November 8 and 9) for which a number of scholars and designers who participated in the exhibit’s creation will speak to topics pertaining to how LGBTQ culture is portrayed and shaped by fashion. Simon Doonan, Jonathan Katz, Fran Lebowitz, Jenny Shimizu, and the exhibit’s curators Fred Dennis and Valerie Steele are listed among its speakers.

In a press statement, Dennis explained that the exhibit is “about honoring the gay and lesbian designers of the past and present. By acknowledging their contributions to fashion, we want to encourage people to embrace diversity.”

“We also hope that this exhibition will transform our understanding of fashion history,” added Steele. “For many years, gays and lesbians were hidden from history. By acknowledging the historic influence of gay designers, and by emphasizing the important role that fashion and style have played within the LGBTQ community, we see how central gay culture has been to the creation of modern fashion.”

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Not surprisingly, the exhibit is focused on transgressive menswear and the contributions of male designers—Dior, Perry Ellis, Halston, Balenciaga, McQueen—to the fashion industry and LGBTQ culture. Menswear, of course, has been worn most transgressively by female bodies; Yves Saint Laurent’s Le Smoking, noted as the inspiration for Marlene Dietrich’s famous tuxedo look, is included in the exhibit.

Dennis and Steele set the origin of this LGBTQ fashion history in the early 1700s, when, according to the same press statement, “men who loved other men were pioneers in challenging sex and gender roles.” However, the challenge to sex and gender roles can be traced throughout history. I am particularly surprised the exhibit begins the 1700s as opposed to, say, the 1500s, when Henry VIII imposed a variety of sumptuary laws that regulated what types of clothing (specifically the types of fabric and color) could be worn by individuals depending upon their “station”—their gender as well as their class and rank—in life. Transgressing these laws included fines and prison sentences. Queen Elizabeth I continued these laws throughout her reign (1558-1603). Only she, as queen, could wear the material silk and the color purple; wives of knights could wear materials of velvets and furs and any color, excluding purple, gold (for duchesses only), and silver (for duchesses and baronesses only).

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One notorious female crossdresser at the time was Mary Frith, also known as Moll Cutpurse, whose bravado and love of male attire—she was frequently seen wearing a doublet and breeches, and a smoking pipe—made her so well known that two contemporary playwrights wrote a play about her called The Roaring Girl in 1611.

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Attention to lesbian style appears later in the exhibit’s timeline, around the section portraying the mid-20th century and the establishment of the “butch-femme” aesthetic relation in the Lesbian Sub-cultural Imaginary. The genealogy of lesbian style evolves through the later 20th century, with the influence of punk and riot grrl elements shaping the aesthetic, later becoming what we—and the rest of high fashion—regard today in the 21st century as “lesbian chic,” androgynous fashion.

The Museum at FIT is open Tuesday-Friday, noon-8pm, and Saturday, 10 a.m.-5 p.m. For more information on the exhibit as well as information about how to register for the symposium, see www.fitnyc.edu/museum.

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