A (Brief) Queer History of Fashion

In celebration of pride month, Maria Henry dives into the LGBTQ+ history of fashion.

Why are the LGBTQ+ community so heavily associated with the fashion industry?

Though it is impossible to summarise the entirety of the LGBTQ+ community’s influence on the world of fashion, this article will hopefully be able to explain some of the ways in which the community has continuously contributed to the history and progression of the fashion industry.

Fashion is not only a fascinating art form, but it is also a tool for selfexpression. It allows us to show who we are on the inside, on the outside. To express a mood, a theme, or an image of ourselves that we want other people to see. Fashion has been long associated with members of the LGBTQ+ community and many prominent designers have identified within this spectrum.

This has led to a clichéd stereotype that gay people know how to dress. However, as director and chief curator of The Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology Valerie Steele proposed, there could be a more socio-cultural reason as to why so many queeridentifying people became interested in fashion.

Her theory is that gay people in the 20th century had to be “hyper-aware of how to read and analyse clothes so as to dress in a way that would allow them to communicate with other people but not to be recognised by a homophobic society”. Thus, the idea that queer people understood the power of an image that fashion can give you. They, therefore, looked more closely at it, so they could present an image of themselves that allowed them to assimilate and hide their true identity within their disapproving, heteronormative societies. As a by-product of this, they were more conscious of the fashions of the time and were able to approach both male and female fashion with a higher degree of incentive.

How the queer community began to influence fashion history

As queer people slowly became more accepted within society, their presence and influence within the fashion world continued to grow as there was less pressure to hide or assimilate into society. They were able to become more experimental with their designs, blurring normative lines by playing with ideas of gender and what men and women were supposed to appear as. Fashion also began to grow into a more theatrical art form, with designers like

Alexander McQueen emerging with the hopes of using fashion as a platform to tell stories and play with shape and form.

Today, the fashion industry is often seen as a supporter of the queer community, as many of the designers at the head of the business are gay people. However true this may be, it is also important to remember that for many years LQBTQ+ people were hidden from history. For years, queer designers were not allowed to be who they were in the eyes of the public, and although their designs give us a window into their minds and carry their legacies and talent — it is only now we are living in a more accepting time that we are truly able to see the influence that LGBTQ+ people had on the expansion of the fashion world and give them the recognition they deserve as pioneers of the art form.

“Black Drag Queens Inventend Camp”

In 2019, in response to the Met Gala’s theme ‘Camp’, Lena Waithe took a stand for the Black Queer community by wearing a pinstripe double-breasted suit designed by menswear house Pyer Moss that had the words “Black Drag Queens Inventend Camp” embroidered on it. This not only highlighted a lot of celebrities’ willingness to ignore the queer roots of the theme, but also an inequality within the LGBTQ+ community itself, which sometimes forgets to highlight the extremely important influence that black queer people had in forming the queer culture we see expressed today.

Black Drag queens often found themselves without a space within the typically white-dominated world of drag. They were further marginalised even within the community they were meant to belong to. As such they carved out their own spaces, finding freedom in highly stylised, self-aware performances which allowed them, through the mode of ‘camp’, to express themselves. They would craft amazing costumes, playing with ideas of gender identity and highlighting fluidity— finding their own space where there wasn’t one given to them. Though the history of camp itself is long and difficult to pinpoint, Waithe reminds us that the white-dominated image of fashion history which we often see isn’t the true or only history. Black drag queens did very much influence the experimental course of fashion, only this history was somewhat buried and only with the bold statements made by activists such as Waithe are we beginning to see the true faces of fashion history unearthed.

Modern day support

In 2018 designer Christopher Bailey voiced his support for young LGBTQ+ designers and dedicated his final collection for Burberry “to the best and brightest organizations supporting LGBTQ youth around the world”. He continued to write on Instagram that, “There has never been a more important time to say that in our diversity lies our strength and our creativity”. The collection featured the first-ever rainbow check Burberry scarf, incorporating pride colours into the classic Burberry design. These rainbow additions continued into the runway show with models wearing dresses with rainbow motifs and sweaters embroidered with ‘Burberry’ in multi-coloured thread. Perhaps one of the biggest moments from the show was when openly queer model Cara Delevingne took to the runway sporting an oversized rainbow fur coat with the classic Burberry check lining.

Another notable show took place in 2017 when the fashion house Opening Ceremony created a drag extravaganza for their spring/summer show. The show was created and hosted by drag queen Sasha Velour and aimed to showcase the art of drag. Velour handpicked over 40 LGBTQ+ inclusive models and stated in an interview with Elle that “Drag performers have been seen as a low form of entertainment for a while and to be in this space where we’re being treated like valuable performers is world-changing”. The show highlighted how the industry is recognising the demand for change and exclusivity, as well as highlighting how drag is more than just a theatrical performance but also an artwork created with fashion worthy of recognition.

These are only two examples of many ways in which modern designers are taking initiatives to show their support for the LGBTQ+ community, openly and with pride. Though there is still a long way to go, it is inspiring to see how many fashion houses are now unapologetically speaking out for their support gay rights and helping to voice the need for activism and acceptance.

Moving forward and the growing need for inclusivity

This year we are seeing the importance of recognising social and racial inequality more than ever. Within the fashion industry, things have been getting progressively better for the LGBTQ+ community, however, this doesn’t mean that the progress needs to stop. We need to keep fighting for change, inclusivity and recognition within the fashion world. 

Fashion is a tool which can be used by anyone, to express anything — therefore it is vital to the progress of the industry that it does reflect everyone. This includes POC, LGBTQ+ people, disabled people, people of different shapes and sizes, and people of different ages. ‘Inclusive’ does not just mean one socially acceptable or marketable image of a person, but rather a diverse range of people. The fashion community must realise, now more than ever, that we can’t just hope for change — we have to fight to make it ourselves.

If you enjoyed this article you can read more by following @mariawriteshere on Twitter.

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