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Celebrating 300 Years of LGBT Fashion

The website for the Museum at FIT's latest exhibit, A Queer History of Fashion: From the Closet to the Catwalk, boasts famous names like Christian Dior and Alexander McQueen, so I anticipated that the venue would be filled with aspiring fashionistas and gay men. I wasn't expecting to be pushing my way through a crowd of elderly people with walkers who were trying to catch a glimpse of Gianni Versace’s 1992 S&M-inspired bondage collection!

 Photograph © The Museum at FIT

Photo courtesy FIT.

The audience attests to the normalization of gay identity and overt expressions of sexuality. According to an article in the Washington Post, "the stereotype of the gay designer is so deeply ingrained in the culture that it is often assumed to be a fact." Curated by Fred Dennis and Valerie Steele, the exhibit marks one of the first attempts to trace the history of the world of LGBT fashion designers from the underground to the mainstream. Emphasizing the centrality of gay culture to the creation of modern fashion, A Queer History of Fashion powerfully reveals how fashion has historically been used as a platform for social and political change, and continues to challenge people’s ways of thinking.

Starting with Oscar Wilde’s dandy ensembles, and ending with Alexander McQueen’s gravity-defying contours, the eclectic mix of ball gowns and leather straps shows that the repression of LGBT individuals has been a driving force behind the creative evolution of European and American fashion. Paradoxically, LGBT designers like Christian Dior and Cristóbal Balenciaga were pressured to hide their sexual orientation while also channeling that very identity into their most imaginative designs. According to the exhibit, a colleague of the famous couturier Mainbocher once noted that, "of course he was gay," but, "no one ever talked about that."

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Photo courtesy FIT.

The blurring of gender roles was another prominent theme. The tuxedo worn by the iconic bisexual Hollywood starlet Marlene Dietrich in the 1930 film Morocco was one of the most prized collectibles there. Young women sporting the garçonne, or boyish, look in the 1920s inspired subsequent generations of designers such as Yves Saint Laurent, who created a whole range of pant suits for women in the 1960s. Jean Paul Gaultier’s skirts for men were another example of fashion as a means of abolishing gender distinctions. As the exhibit pointed out, Darrell Moos, a client of Gaultier, remarked, "I never felt feminine wearing my skirts … I felt like a warrior!"

 Photograph © The Museum at FIT

Photo courtesy FIT.

Among the most thoughtful displays were Franco Moschino’s 1992 vest with an iconic red lapel ribbon symbolizing solidarity with people with AIDS, and Geoffrey Beene’s paper dress for the Love Ball AIDS benefit in 1989. Given that many gay designers, such as Halston, died of AIDS, it was important for the fashion world to promote the cause. The section on clothes devoted to raising AIDS awareness is a powerful example of fashion as a driver for social change. 

Yet despite its openness to concepts such as blurred gender lines and AIDS awareness, A Queer History of Fashion was lacking when it came to featuring designs and designers from non-European and American cultures. (Andy Warhol’s 1956 tailor-made suit from Hong Kong was an exception.) This is a glaring omission, especially since gay Asian designers like Jason Wu and Thakoon Panichgul have been taking New York Fashion Week by storm, and designing dresses for First Lady Michelle Obama. While they could easily fit within the scope of such an exhibit, fashion designers from minority backgrounds are often relegated to culture-specific exhibits such as MOCA's on Chinese American designers.

An article in W magazine recently expressed concerns about the future of the fashion world, arguing that, "as gays get hitched and become increasingly assimilated," gay fashion may become less imaginative. But as A Queer History of Fashion has proven, there have always been social problems for LGBT designers to address. As long as there remain causes to fight for, we can be reasonably optimistic that the fashion world will continue to shock and provoke.

 Photograph © The Museum at FIT

Photo courtesy FIT.

The exhibit is open to the public until January 4, 2014.

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