LGBT Fashion

Queer Style A History of Fashion at FIT in New York

A new show at the Museum at FIT in New York explores the history of queer fashion. Peter Davis reports.

Fashion Group Foundation

Everyone knows that fashion is as gay as it gets, right? So then why did it take so long for an exhibit exploring the influence and impact of the LGBT community on the world of style? “We were astonished no one had done it before,” says Valerie Steele, the Director of the Museum at FIT, which opened a new show, A Queer History of Fashion: From the Closet to the Catwalk, this week. “We thought it was really overdue.”

With just 100 outfits, the exhibition races through three centuries like a fashion mix-tape of greatest gay hits. It encompasses both homosexual and lesbian designers (Jil Sander is one of the few of these) as well as the “gay aesthetic” from leather daddies to drag queens to bears to gym bunnies to dandies. And let’s not forget the ladies: lipstick lesbians, bull dykes, and sapphic sisters in tuxedos, top hats and monocles. “This was never just about gay designers,” Steele explains, standing next to female mannequins in tailored men’s suits that would make k.d. lang jealous. “It was about gay communities and their influence on fashion and queer vernacular styles.”

Steele curated the show with her colleague Fred Dennis and included many crowd-pleasers, like over-the-top outfits designed by Jean Paul Gaultier (the cone bust dress that Madonna once loved), Yves Saint Laurent (the iconic “Le Smoking” jacket) and Gianni Versace (a leather bondage ball gown). But what is most authentic, original, and intriguing are the outfits and accompanying comments of gay personalities past and present.

Celebrity eye candy is delivered with Liberace’s marabou-trimmed pink sequined cape, subversively chic menswear worn by Marlene Dietrich and a dragtastic dress from RuPaul’s wardrobe. Also on display are men on the fashion scene today, like TV personality and Fashion Week front row fixture Robert Verdi whose signature panache includes sunglasses worn atop the head like Jackie O. “I never really thought my clothes would be museum-worthy,” Verdi admits. “The best thing about having your clothes in a museum is that people imagine you’re far more fabulous that you really are.” InStyle Fashion Director Hal Rubenstein lent outfits given to him personally by his late friend Gianni Versace, who instructed to always wear the butt-hugging pants with “no underwear.” “We thought it would be interesting to get people to talk about what their clothes meant to them,” Steele says. “So we selected a few. I didn’t want to get too many as the show was already bursting at the seams.” Style writer Cator Sparks’s dandy outfit – Edwardian mixed with Alexander McQueen – made the cut. Steele visited Sparks in Harlem to cull from his collection of high-end labels and vintage pieces. “The highlight was having Valerie lay on my bed and look through my closet,” he says.

Speaking of closets, the metaphor of being stuck in one is always part of the gay dialogue and the show explores designers who hid their sexuality in public, such as Christian Dior, Rudi Gernreich, Bill Blass, and Halston. A hidden identity has always been part of gay culture, thus coded forms of dressing are explored, starting with the 1890s when a red tie symbolized being queer. Every decade had a coded visual vocabulary that signaled being gay or lesbian to those in the know. In the 1930s it was bleached hair; hat bands in the Forties, and later more overt looks like the Levis and plaid wearing macho men of the sexual revolution of the 1970s and the muscled Eighties gym bunnies. And did you know that effeminate men in the 18th-century were known as “mollies”? Or that “macaronis” were foppish, sexually ambiguous males in the 1760s and 1770s? Both groups are represented, as well as famous gay raconteurs such as Oscar Wilde who quipped, “Fashion is a form of ugliness so intolerable that we have to alter it every six months.”

Amidst the fun and fabulousness of Savile Row tailor Tommy Nutter’s flamboyant suits and the outrageous bearded 1970s San Francisco drag queen performance collective The Cockettes, there is a somber display devoted to the AIDS crisis which decimated so many lives in the design community. Under t-shirts with slogans from the activist group ACT UP are pieces created by designers who have died from the disease such as Willi Smith, Perry Ellis, Halston, and Bill Robinson who was known in his time as the male Donna Karan.

The exhibit concludes with a series of celebrity looks worn by Andy Warhol and the bisexual Dietrich who has become a prototype of sleek lesbian chic. But after 100 mannequins, you still want more. Where are Olympic skater Johnny Weir’s feathers and frills? Or Adam Lambert’s glam-goth stage get-ups? Why did Ellen DeGeneres’ boyish daytime talk show duds not make the grade? Steele and Dennis chose not to include many current looks and avoided the new generation of gay fashion designers, including Jason Wu and Proenza Schouler’s Lazaro Hernandez and Jack McCollough. “This could have been a different show if it had been lots of contemporary gay designers,” Steele says. “What we wanted to do was a real historical sweep through 300 years of LGBT influence on fashion.”

One of the sweetest moments in the show is a celebration of the historical gay marriage rulings. There are two brides together and two grooms holding hands. One of the grooms represented is CFDA President Steven Kolb, who married his partner Jay Inkpen in December 2012. “I was very surprised but flattered when Valerie asked me to borrow our suits,” Kolb says, adding: “queer style is ultimately an expression of freedom to love and be who you are."