Em Poncia dives into queer history from a fashion perspective.
There is little debate about the capacity of fashion to portray, and even form, identity. Whether this is on an individual level or pertaining to group status, what you wear serves as an immediate indicator of who you are, or who you want to be perceived as.
To this extent, queerness has historically often been shown through style of dress, sometimes being codified so that only those in the know would recognise it, and sometimes overt and intended as a statement of brazen queerness in the face of a heteronormative society.
Equally, fashion as we think of it is queered inherently because of its connotations. For example, being regarded as an inherently feminine pursuit in the modern day, a man who shows an interest in fashion is automatically queered in the eyes of society. And yet, it is an industry where most of the biggest players have historically been (lauded) men.
Furthermore, fashion often queers – transgresses – the accepted boundaries of clothing. Flamboyance and material excess have become visual synonyms for avant-garde fashion, but also for queerness.
Bringing into focus previously ignored queer history, therefore, helps us to understand fashion as means to create and adopt identities, and also how fashion itself can be considered queer to its very core.
A NOTE ON TERMINOLOGY
Discussing ‘queerness’ in relation to historical fashion requires an examination of our terminological norms. To be ‘queer’ has been reclaimed, having previously been used as a slur that points out difference from the heterosexual norm. ‘Queerness’ has taken on broader meanings, and to ‘queer’ can be considered as a transgression of boundaries, or an upset in the normative world order. Thus, using the word ‘queer’ to describe non-normative identity should be understood to be facilitated by modern use of language, and not something that people would have self-identified with historically.
An aspect of understanding queer visibility in fashion history is recognising codes that signify belonging to or alliance with a sub-cultural group. The creation of such codes is not uniquely queer, often also occurring amongst left-wing political movements, or movements where operations have to be below-radar.
In L.A. in the 1980s, punks used laces on their trademark Doc Marten boots to signify alliance with a cause in such a way that only their compatriots could recognise. With the area having significant ties to racist organisations like the KKK, it was important to know who was for and against the cause for racial equality, and this was done by using certain lace colours and styles. Purple laces were a declaration of homosexuality, and it allowed young people to show their sexual orientation to their peers without fear of judgement from people outside of the code. At the time, same-sex marriage was not legal in the US.
Because lace culture has died down, and very few people use the code anymore, this mode of identifying, recognising, and protecting queer people is not well known. Serving as a valuable tool for its contemporaries, it has disappeared in the modern day, its ephemerality continuing the anonymous force it exercised.
It could also be argued that the “camp” aesthetic is a form of queer coding. Sharing some elements with kitsch, “camp” is a term used to describe an extravagant, flamboyant, and often effeminate aesthetic. It is highly stylised, and fashion is one of the main ways that it manifests.
However, camp is codified in a far less secretive sense. Because of its flamboyancy, it is a ‘queer’ aesthetic in the sense that it goes beyond normative taste towards artifice. It is also synonymous with ‘queerness’ in that those who use the aesthetic are assumed not to subscribe to heteronormativity. Here, the code is well-known, and rather than serving to assimilate queerness into the every day, it markedly separates queer and mainstream aesthetics. It is a code that marks out members of a group, but it does so in a way that is not afraid of recognition, even welcoming acknowledgement
However, the influence that the camp sensibility has had on fashion since its inception often goes uncredited.
Within fashion history, queerness has both slipped under the radar as we have seen with queer coding, but it has also been swept under the rug in deliberate attempts to brush over, and even eclipse entirely, queer history.
A poignant example of this is the ‘Dancing Marquess’ of Angelsey, a queer patron of the arts whose legacy was entirely washed over by an ashamed family after his death. Having burned through his immense fortune, Edwardian Marquess Henry Cyril Paget died in March 1905. He had lived incredibly lavishly, commissioning suits made entirely of real emeralds, costumes for pantomimes he put on encrusted with real jewels, and gutted the chapel in his family home to make room for a 150-seat theatre.
What has drawn modern attention to Paget’s extraordinary lifestyle is the selling of an extravagant tiara that belonged to his estate. Its expected buying cost is six figures or more, and it features over 100 carats of European and mine-cut diamonds.
Paget is considered by historians to have been queer because his marriage was estranged, even nearly being annulled on grounds of lack of consummation. His love for the theatre, extravagance, and eccentricity align with more modern considerations of the camp aesthetic, and his lack of contact with family members suggest his being an outcast, which would have been common at the time for not aligning with societal heteronormativity.
The case of the ‘Dancing Marquess’ is a classic one of queer invisibility and erasure. After his death, the theatre was reconverted into a chapel, the family estate was renamed its traditional Welsh name, and most traces of his presence in the house were removed. There was nothing left of the ‘Dancing Marquess’.
The story serves to show how queer people throughout history have been subject not only to discrimination but to actual historical deletion. Paget’s story is one that has resurfaced, but there are undoubtedly many others whose entire lives and careers have been scrubbed from the annals of time, or who were not able to live their true identity because of social restraints.
Fashion owes much of its visual culture to queer history, relying on queer figures to break boundaries and reveal new cultures to the mainstream. Much of high fashion follows queer trends, and it is queer people that often design some of the most cult items. Deleting the queer influence from fashion history makes for a less than full understanding of fashion today, as well as robbing people of their due when it comes to making and influencing design history.
You can read more of Em’s work on her twitter @emponcia
Images via Wikimedia Commons, Canva, and film stills from Paris is Burning