Gay and fashion

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The illegality of homosexuality and the moral disapproval that it attracted forced gay men and lesbians to live virtually invisible lives in the first part of the twentieth century. Up until the gay liberation movement of the late 1960s, the most important criterion of dressing in public, for the mass of gay men and lesbians, was to be able to "pass" as heterosexual. Despite this need, many were aware of the dress codes and items that could be used to signal sexual orientation. These symbols of identity often took the form of a specific type or color of accessory and, like other secret symbols, developed and changed over time. The primary signifier at the time of the Oscar Wilde trials in the 1890s was the green carnation. Indeed, the color green had been associated with the effeminate and sometimes sodomitical macaronis of the 1770s and continued to have gay associations in clothing through the first part of the twentieth century. George Chauncey notes that in 1930s New York City, green suits were the badge of open "pansies." Other signifiers for gay men included a red necktie (worn in New York City before World War II) and suede shoes (one of the most international and enduring gay signifiers). Lesbian signifiers included accessories such as ties and cufflinks, short haircuts (particularly the "Eton crop" of the 1920s), and the color violet.

Gay and fashion

Post-Liberation Lesbian Style

During the "menswear revolution" of the 1960s, the association of fashion and homosexuality began to diminish. With the rise in subcultural fashions and the dissemination of Carnaby Street fashions around the world, it was suddenly acceptable for young men to be interested in fashion, and to spend time and money on clothes and appearance. Carnaby Street fashions were initially sold to a gay "theatrical and artistic" clientele by a former physique photographer by the name of Vince from a shop near Carnaby Street. John Stephen, who was later to be known as the "King of Carnaby Street," had worked at Vince's shop and produced the clothes faster, cheaper, and for a younger market. In America, too, a close-fitting "European style." worn primarily by gay men, was sold from "boutiques" in Greenwich Village, New York, and West Hollywood in Los Angeles.

Fashion And Homosexuality

Overt gay men, who did not want to go so far as to cross-dress, sometimes adopted the most obvious signifiers of female mannerisms and dress: plucked eyebrows, rouge, eye makeup, peroxide blond hair, high-heeled shoes, women's blouses. In America it was illegal for men (and women) to cross dress unless attending a masquerade. At least three items of clothing had to be appropriate to the gender. Adopting such an appearance was dangerous, for it was risky to be overtly homosexual. In his autobiography, The Naked Civil Servant (1968), Quentin Crisp recalls being stopped a number of times by police because of his effeminate appearance. However, the risks were worthwhile for many. Dressing as a "flaming queen" was a means of entering into the subculture of gay society. Also, by adopting female characteristics and by adhering to strict gendered rules of sexual behavior, queens could attract allegedly "normal," straight sexual partners. The adoption of effeminate dress codes began to wane with the rise of gay liberation, but has continued to play a role in gay life.

Fashion And Homosexuality

Even before the twentieth century, transvestism and cross-dressing among men were associated with the act of sodomy. By the eighteenth century, many cities in Europe had developed small but secret homosexual subcultures. London's homosexual subculture was based around inns and public houses where "mollies" congregated. Many of the mollies wore women's clothing as both a form of self-identification and as a means of attracting sexual partners. They wore "gowns, petticoats, head-cloths, fine laced shoes, furbelowed scarves, and masks; [and] some had riding hoods; some were dressed like milk maids, others like shepherdesses with green hats, waistcoats, and petticoats; and others had their faces patched and painted" (Trumbach, p. 138).

Fashion And Homosexuality

In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the adoption of male dress was a means for many women, including many lesbians, to protest the status of women and the roles assigned them by patriarchal societies. Cross-dressing had been and continued to be utilized by women to allow them to "pass" as men and be accepted. Some, like writer George Sand and painter Rosa Bonheur utilized the methods in order to have their professional work be taken seriously. The period between the two World Wars saw a rise in lesbian visibility. The typical masculinized lesbian dress of the period is typified by the wing collar, monocle, and man's jacket worn by Lady Una Troubridge (lover of Radclyffe Hall, author of The Well of Loneliness) in her portrait by Romain Brooks. In America, lesbian performers such as Ma Rainey and Gladys Bentley wore men's top hat and tails to express their identity, while bisexual film stars Greta Garbo and Marlene Dietrich wore masculine clothes both on-and offscreen.


By the late 1960s, lesbians and gay men throughout the Western world had begun to question their position as second-class citizens and their stereotype as effeminate "queens" or "butch dykes." Along with the demands for equality and recognition, lesbians and gay men began to address their appearance. There had always been gay men who dressed in a conventionally masculine style, but in the early 1970s, gay men in New York and San Francisco looked to the epitomes of American masculinity—the cowboy, the lumberjack, the construction worker—for inspiration for a new dress style. The clones, as they were known, adopted the most masculine dress signifiers they could find—work boots, tight Levi's, plaid shirts, short haircuts, and moustaches. Their clothes were chosen to reveal and celebrate the contours of the male body.

Fashion And Homosexuality

Some clones also developed their sexual tastes by experimenting with sadomasochism. Consequently, they sometimes adopted a "leatherman" appearance and lifestyle, which involved a strict codification of dress and a new system of signifiers, most notably colored handkerchiefs in a back pocket, specifying particular sexual interests. The hypermasculine image has continued to be important even after the supposed death of the clone in the late 1980s, when the image became associated with an older generation of pre-AIDS gay men. Gay men have interpreted and demonstrated their masculine looks through the celebration of muscular "gym" bodies and clothing that shows off those bodies, as well as the emergence of other masculine subcultural styles such as the shaven-headed, boots and braces wearing, but not necessarily racist skinhead.

Gay Men and Masculinity

Male homosexuals continued to cross-dress in both public and private spaces throughout the nineteenth century. In the 1920s, the Harlem drag balls offered a safe space for gay men (and lesbians) to cross-dress. Similarly the Arts Balls of the 1950s in London offered an opportunity denied in everyday life. Cross-dressing performers, commonly known as drag queens, used women's clothes to parody straight society and create a gay humor. One of the greatest American drag performers was Charles Pierce, who began his career in the 1950s, and was best known for his impersonations of film stars such as Bette Davis and Joan Crawford. The tradition
Until the 1970s, the public image of lesbians was very much centered on masculinity. As a means of asserting difference and signaling to other lesbians, many women-loving women adopted certain "masculine" markers, such as a collar and tie or trousers. In America, it was illegal for women to dress completely in men's clothes, and they were required to wear "three pieces of women's clothing" (Nestle, p. 100). Public reaction was not sympathetic to "butch" lesbians. American lesbian writer and activist Joan Nestle "walked the streets looking so butch that straight teenagers called [her a] bulldyke" (Nestle, p. 100).

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