A Gay Old Time

A new exhibition tracks the historical impact of queer culture on fashion. Michael Musto can’t keep a straight face.

Fashion » A Gay Old Time

A Gay Old Time
A gay pride parade, 1989

A Gay Old Time

A new exhibition tracks the historical impact of queer culture on fashion. Michael Musto can’t keep a straight face.

Every designer on earth is gay, and every gay person on the planet is into fashion. End of story. No, wait, I’ve been assigned to write more words than that. And there’s actually a lot more to the queer/fashion relationship: The two are intertwined in complicated ways that transcend such absurd clichés and hoary stereotypes. Besides, I once met a designer who wasn’t gay. (Lol.)

“A Queer History of Fashion: From the Closet to the Catwalk,” an exhibition opening this month at the Museum at FIT in New York, sheds some serious light on the topic. The fascinating show, curated by Fred Dennis and the museum’s director, Valerie Steele, spans more than three centuries of gayness—starting even before I was born—and includes 100 looks that chronicle the LGBT community’s experiments in hiding and flaunting and outdoing itself in all sorts of aesthetic ways. Gays have long used fashion to accessorize the blues out of their oppression and to identify and elevate one another with panache and a sash: We’ve dressed up to get noticed, to celebrate, to fight, to mourn, and to celebrate again.

A three-piece neo-Edwardian suit; a fop-inspired three-piece suit by Vivienne Westwood, circa 1990

From left: A three-piece neo-Edwardian suit; a fop-inspired three-piece suit by Vivienne Westwood, circa 1990

So where does the connection between style and homosexuality come from, other than some zhooshed-up goddess in the sky? According to Steele, some gay men are drawn to designing beautiful things out of the desire “to create another world in reaction to a homophobic society.” Many find themselves in fashion, she adds, because “it can be a refuge for gay men, an opportunity to be accepted and find validation.” And even if it’s not one’s official occupation, dabbling in fashion and having one’s outfits “read” by the right people can be a rewarding preoccupation.

The exhibition starts with the late 18th century, charting the progression of coded signifiers. Steele says these have ranged from subtle tells like red neckties (1890s) and bleached hair (1930s and 1940s) to more overt signifiers like leather harnesses (1970s and 1980s). (Wear a harness with a red necktie, however, and you might really confuse people.)

Drag queens, often the leaders of the gay pride parade, will, fittingly, also kick off the show—specifically the 18th-century mollies, who dressed up to go out to private parties and taverns, called molly houses, running the risk of arrest. Around 1710, fops (some but not all of whom were gay) emerged in silky, lacy embroidered outfits that defined the aristocratic style of the moment. By 1850, wishing to distance themselves from what had become an increasingly effeminate and stigmatized movement, the aristocrats switched to conservative dark suits. But the fops kept sashaying—and left such a strong legacy that nearly 250 years later, Vivienne Westwood paid homage to them in her 1991 Cut and Slash collection. I would gladly wear her minty green photo-printed silk jacket with knee breeches—especially if a dozen or so extra ruffles could be added from top to bottom.

A 1773 illustration of a molly

A 1773 illustration of a molly

The show also explores the flip side of gay fashion: masculine women. In the late-19th and early-20th centuries, sapphic sisters were known to wear mannish tailored suits and ­monocles—though Steele says photos from turn-of-the-­century lesbian get-togethers point to the existence of a butch-femme dichotomy. (Yes, they had lipstick lesbians 100 years ago.) Several of Marlene Dietrich’s subversively photogenic outfits are on view—a tuxedo, a man’s-style suit, and a yachting suit. “She was a bisexual woman who was at the forefront of a style adopted by lesbians and other fashionable women,” Steele says.

Acts of sartorial daring went underground in the oppressive ’50s. “Most gay men tried to blend in and be invisible, unless at a club at night,” Steele explains. Adds Dennis, “And I don’t think it was only gay men.” The ’50s were a time of conformity and fear for just about everyone. Young people spent that decade hiding under desks during air raid drills, and older folks were acutely aware that being perceived as different in any possible way was not such a great thing during the McCarthy Era.

But what a difference a decade makes. The ’60s unleashed the Savile Row tailor Tommy Nutter and Carnaby Street’s John Stephen, who gussied up traditional suits with colorful patterns and zingy shapes. Suddenly it seemed everyone was being bold and flamboyant—including the gays, who, Steele points out, embraced the mod, hippie, disco, and punk movements. And then of course, there was Liberace. The exhibition includes one of the performer’s pink sequined capes trimmed with marabou feathers—you know, just a little something he could dazzle the crowds with in between finding a new boyfriend and persuading him to get plastic surgery.

Experimentation became even more pronounced in the late ’60s and early ’70s, thanks to the “gender fuck” ethos of the Cockettes, a San Francisco–based performance troupe known to accessorize girly outfits with full beards and hairy legs. The ’70s were a big decade for facial hair in general. Macho-looking studs emerged with handlebar ’staches to go with their flannel shirts and colored bandannas; New York City’s Christopher Street teemed with strutting gay “clones” trying to come off like sexually versatile versions of John Wayne, a look Dennis says “came out of the idea of revolution—taking back our identity and creating an identity.”

The Cockettes circa 1970

The Cockettes circa 1970

And the gay guys only got tougher: In the ’80s, muscle-bound gym bunnies emerged, in part as a response to the AIDS epidemic. Building up one’s body and copping a tough pose was a bittersweet attempt to become less vulnerable to the horrors of the time, which also included gay bashing and bullying. There is a section of the exhibition devoted to the work of designers who died of AIDS, like Halston and Perry Ellis, plus a sampling of AIDS-activism T-shirts, bedecked with clever slogans and graphics. I vividly remember wearing those by day as I rolled around in the street protesting, before slipping into something more Liberace-like (via Big Bird) for my nocturnal club rounds, always aware of the fabulous mixed metaphors inherent in my out gay life.

For the really daring, the curators have included a Jean Paul Gaultier skirt-pant look from his 1984 menswear collection—“The lender said he always felt very masculine wearing it,” Steele notes. And the show would not be complete without a Gaultier cone-bra corset dress, like the one famously worn by Madonna in 1990, which combines the imagery of a nurturing mother figure with that of a preening dominatrix. In the years that followed, kink became even less apologetic. Representing the late ’90s is an eye-popping all-black ensemble consisting of a severely cinched corset by the fetish legend Mr. Pearl, a cropped denim jacket, leather pants, a cap, and a pair of combat boots.

But things end on an elegant note, with his-and-his and hers-and-hers wedding ensembles, underscoring the significance of marriage equality as the defining issue of the current LGBT movement. Here’s a worry, though: As gays get hitched and become increasingly assimilated, will their style start to become mainstream too? Will the next exhibition on gay fashion celebrate button-down shirts and single-pleat khakis? Steele posed that very question to Barneys New York’s creative ambassador at large Simon Doonan when she interviewed him for A Queer History of Fashion, the book that accompanies the show. “I asked, ‘Can you tell the difference anymore?’ ” Steele recalls. “And he said, ‘Gay men tend to accessorize more.’ ” To which I respond: “Well, phew!”