When surveying the literature about queer style, there are several points of ambiguity that make the topic so elusive but also so stimulating. This is because queer style has a diverse signifying range. These include, more or less, forms of dress linked to queer identity, such as drag, but also codes of behavior, forms of speech, and modes of deportment. Cross-dressing has been a staple of many cultures throughout the world, and has been present in the West in burlesque drama since at least the Atellan farce (masked and improvised farces popular in Rome) from around 400 B.C.E. The taboos set on same-sex and unconventional sexual tendencies since at least the fall of the Roman Empire necessitated an oblique, elliptical approach to their expression. This need both to hide and yet to express queer identity has been a rich resource for novelists since the nineteenth century, culminating in the work of Proust, Gide, and Forster. Indeed, as Proust’s first major biographer, George Painter (1978) notes, Gide called his contemporary to task for being too slight and inadvertent in his characterization of “inverts” in his writing, to be published after his death as À la recherche du temps perdu (1913–1927; we recommend the Moncrieff-Kilmartin translation, 1981). Gide, with Corydon (1924) is credited as having written the first major “coming-out” novel of the twentieth century. Nonetheless, it is because of Proust’s perceived reticence that a strong and subtle sense of the covert signs of homosexuality in an age of moral ambivalence and hypocrisy is found.
Curiously, however, the growth of queer men’s style grew out of the birth of modern male fashion and the figure of George “Beau” Brummell. Heralded as the first dandy, Brummell was scrupulous in curating his persona and dress, simplifying men’s clothing by emphasizing line and cut over finery and embellishment. While Brummell is not known to have been gay, he was still sexually ambiguous, with no great taste for women. Retrospectively, this can be applied to the persona of the dandy, where it pertained to queer style and manners, in which the covert homosexual would engage in outré behavior that could be ascribable to dandyism instead of sexual deviance. Brummell has been an ongoing source of fascination for a wide range of writers. He was the source of inspiration for the first discrete study by the famous dandy and novelist Jules Barbey d’Aurevilly, who wrote a biographical account in 1845, famously concluding that dandyism was impossible to define. (A less well-known, but lengthier biography of Brummell is attributed to William Jesse in 1844.) This was followed by the chapter on the dandy by Charles Baudelaire in his influential The Painter of Modern Life and Other Essays (1863). Bernard Howells (1996) writes about Baudelaire’s dandyism and its key role in artistic individualism. Max Beerbohm, another dandy, in his essay on dandyism (1886), declared that: “In the rigid perfection of his linen, in the symmetry of the glove with his hand, lay the secret of Mr. Brummell’s miracles.” Virginia Woolf wrote an account (1930), which was followed by one by Willard Connely (1940), Kathleen Campbell (1948), and Charles Franzero (1958), and more recently by Ian Kelly (2006).
As approaches to identity that flouted contemporary norms, dandyism and bohemianism were often used interchangeably, although the dandy could be more inclined to splendor than the bohemian. Key commentaries on dandyism include those of Sima Godfrey (1982) and Elizabeth Amann (2015)—who has looked at the dandy as an agent of revolution and change. As with scholars of bohemia, dandyism has been viewed either historically periodized, or as a pan-historic phenomenon arising from modernism. Brummell and the ongoing fascination with the dandy, while not confined to homosexual style, have deep relevance as inasmuch as gay identity places a premium of the care taken in appearance. This is discussed by numerous authors, such as Shaun Cole (2000), Valerie Steele (1985), and Richard Dyer (2002).
While the term “homosexuality” was coined in 1886 by the German psychiatrist Richard Krafft-Ebing in his Psychopathia Sexualis, the most significant examples of queer style appear with Oscar Wilde, in both his work and in his person. His plays, culminating in The Importance of Being Earnest (1894), are replete with what we would now refer to as fey and “camp” behavior. References to gay style and behavior were even more noticeable in The Picture of Dorian Gray (1891), which quickly ushered homosexuality into the ambit of the decadent, the dangerous, and the doomed. In person, Wilde always cut a very distinctive figure. While often broadly referred to as a dandy, as his definitive biographer Richard Ellmann (1988) shows, Wilde took pains to ensure that he was one of a kind. Hence Ellmann refers to Wilde’s many memorable sartorial dalliances as “bizarre dandyism.” Wilde’s exhibitionism earned him plenty of sceptics and detractors, who awaited his fall. This was precipitated by the Wilde vs. Queensbury trial in 1895, when, as it is often said, all homosexuality was put on trial. It was at this time that “bohemian” began to be used as a euphemism for “homosexual,” for both were viewed as antiestablishment and reprobate. Discussions of Wilde feature in most essays and books involving queer men’s fashions. One notable essay is by Ed Cohen (1996), who concentrates on the performative aspect of Wilde, his “posing,” thus highlighting the relationship between queer style and theatrical enactment. On the overarching influence of Wilde, see Alan Sinfeld, The Wilde Century (1994).
“What Does a Lesbian Look Like?” asks Elizabeth Wilson in her analysis of lesbian style in the early twentieth century in Valerie Steele’s edited volume, A Queer History of Fashion: From the Closet to the Catwalk (2013). The answer is not as simple as it may seem. A historical survey of lesbian dress style would begin in the 1920s with the high-fashion choices of mannish lesbians. Prior to the early half of the twentieth century, women passed as men by acting and dressing as men for political or economic choices, or for adventure. These “Sapphic” women (a term derived from the Greek lyrical poet Sappho, who hailed from the island of Lesbos and who possessed erotic predilections toward women) wore masculine attire that was an extension of the dress choices of the male dandy: top hat, cravat, and tuxedo. They often wore a monocle and smoked a cigar or cigarette in public. While economically independent women of the upper echelons of society, such as novelist Radclyffe Hall (The Well of Loneliness) and Una Troubridge, flaunted their sexuality in public venues, women of the lower classes only wore mannish clothes in the evening, concealed under a coat on their way to a lesbian salon. For a comprehensive description of the sartorial choices of Sapphic women who lived in London and Paris during the 1920s, see Laura Doan’s “Passing Fashions” essay of 1998 and Fashioning Sapphism book of 2001. See also Elizabeth Wilson’s seminal essay “Forbidden Love” (1984, which examines the lesbian, who was considered to be a sexual “invert,” during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries in London and Paris).
In France, the mannish lesbian was called a lionne (lioness) and appeared at the time of the July Monarchy. The lioness was a subcategory of the femme à la mode, and was characterized as sexually voracious and excessive in her erotic pursuits of other women. She ate, drank, and smoked profligately and pursued strenuous physical exercise such as pigeon shooting, horse riding, and swimming. See Miranda Gill, who writes of the “surrogate masculinity” of the lioness in her monograph Eccentricity and the Cultural Imagination of Nineteenth-Century Paris (2008). Paris enjoyed a thriving lesbian subculture up until the 1940s and boasted bars and cabaret clubs such as Le Carroll’s Club and the Monocle, made famous by George Brassaï’s memoirs The Secret Paris of the 1930s (1976). Brassaï’s photographs of fashionably cross-dressed couples, masculine, tuxedo-clad women drinking champagne, and elegant butch-femme couples dancing or flirting at tables, captured the butch-femme subculture of Paris in the 1930s. Whilst lesbians living in London and Paris frequented literary and artistic salons and bars, lesbians living in Greenwich Village and Harlem in New York socialized in cabarets such as the Clam House and Ubungi, which featured live shows and drag performances by the mannish impresario Gladys Bentley. “Rent parties” (held in private homes to raise money for the rent) were also the best places for lesbians to socialize because of privacy. The historian Eric Garber writes about the lesbian (and gay) subculture in Harlem in his study “A Spectacle in Color: The Lesbian and Gay Subculture of Jazz Age Harlem” (1989).
Although the Wilde trial did much to entrench the stigma about expressions of gay male identity, it also spurred others to reassert alternative identities in new and affirmative ways. This was particularly evident in the artistic avant-garde in Paris in the first decades of the twentieth century. Jerrold Seigel (1986) writes about the bohemian types of this period, such as an eccentric, Jacques Vaché, whose “sexual life was part of the mystery.” Seigel also discusses Jean Cocteau, who was part dandy, part intellectual, and part impresario. Elizabeth Wilson, in her influential book on bohemia (2000), argues persuasively that bohemia became an important sartorial cipher for subcultures from the golden age of bohemia in the 1830s until the hippies and hipsters of recent times.
The artists of the twentieth century enjoyed freakish parties and acts, especially the Dadists and the surrealists. Although not homosexual per se, Dada guru Marcel Duchamp paraded an alter ego, Rrose Sélavy (“Eros, that’s life”). His biographer Calvin Tomkins (1998, 2014) suggests that this was one of his many methods of denaturing and subversion, and of testing the limits between art and life. Amelia Jones (1995) sees Duchamp’s cross-dressing as a strategy employed across much of his art, where sexuality is broken down to make gender binaries unsustainable. She argues that Rrose is a purposely indecisive figure. Duchamp’s personal alter ego is but one marker in an era when outlandish and ambiguous dress, among artistic circles, was treated as having important performative values that could have jarring effects commensurate with any surrealist painting. Judith Butler, in her seminal studies of performance and gender (1990, 1993), argues that it is precisely through dragging that the artificiality of gender constructs is exposed.
The early decades of the twentieth century in the United States witnessed the birth of the African American dandy. In her important book on the subject, Monica Miller (2009) explains that the Afro-American reinterpretation of the dandy was a central mechanism for resistance and the assertion of difference. Miller cites the memorable figure of Julius Soubise, who “was at once feminized and spectacularized.” In Greenwich Village, bars and cafés were filled with “long-haired men and short-haired women.” George Chauncey (1994) notes how gay and lesbian cultures were not always accepted by artists and writers and were often slandered in the press. Uptown in the speakeasies of Harlem, the culture was a great deal more permissive.
Meanwhile, in Berlin, the underground gay scene was flourishing—as detailed by Christopher Isherwood (1977). The role of homosexuality in Nazism remains a fraught topic. Ernst Roehm, the leader of the later disbanded Sturmabteilung (SA or Brownshirts), was openly homosexual and speculations circulate regarding Hitler. Nonetheless, Nazi Hellenism would become an important factor in the gay male aesthetic, as would the troping on Nazi uniform for styling for both men and women to the present day. Scott Lively and Kevin Abrams explore these themes in The Pink Swastika: Homosexuality and the Nazi Party (1995). And as Geczy and Karaminas put it in Queer Style (2013), “If all roads lead to Rome, all BDSM pathways lead to Nuremberg.”
Lesbian bar culture was flourishing in the United States, particularly among working-class women. Butch women wore heavily starched shirts, large cuff links, ties, and Oxford brogues at bars or parties and butch-femme relationships were the norm. Elizabeth Lapovsky Kennedy and Madeline D. Davis’ study of lesbian bar culture in the United States in the 1930s and 1940s, “ ‘I Could Hardly Wait to Get Back to That Bar’: Lesbian Bar Culture in the 30s and 40s” (2006) is an important reference for this period. See also Kennedy and Davis’s Boots of Leather, Slippers of Gold: The History of a Lesbian Community (1993) and Lillian Faderman’s Old Girls and Twilight Lovers: A History of Lesbian Life in Twentieth-Century America, 1991.
As Shaun Cole writes in Don We Now Our Gay Apparel (2000), one of the fraught issues for gay male style was the perception of effeminacy. Edmund White, in his important (and definitive) biography of Jean Genet (1994) examines the way in which Genet cultivated his own version of burly, gay manliness. Genet became a benchmark of butch manliness, also because he was unabashed about his sexual leanings. Genet’s intellectual following included none other than Jean-Paul Sartre, who in his cumbersome tract Saint Genet (1952) leapt to dubious conclusions, including that one chose one’s sexual orientation. Gay manliness would reach its convulsive apogee with the comics of Touko Laaksonen, aka Tom of Finland. Laaksonen himself dressed in leather and dreamed up what Guy Snaith (2003) terms a “gay utopia” of muscle men with bulges everywhere, including the bit that matters. This was more than a comic strip, but a template for gay manliness, including the “clone,” and the Muscle Mary. In surveying male types over the twentieth century, it is curious to note their instability. As Geczy and Karaminas argue (2017), any attempt to bring a male type to an essentialist male conclusion of extremes tends to result in him tipping into camp or queer.
Feminist lesbian style in the 1960s and 1970s was essentially antifashion and rejected butch-femme couplings, arguing that women were mimicking the heterosexual binary of patriarchal society. In her seminal text “Towards a Butch-Femme Aesthetic” (1993), Sue-Ellen Case critiques this feminist argument that called for discarding butch-femme identities for a liberated androgynous subjectivity. See Karen Everett’s 1992 documentary, Framing Lesbian Fashion, which documents the women’s liberation movement in the 1960s and the types of fashions that they wore. During the 1980s, lesbians began playing with butch-femme roles, once again reconceptualizing stylistic cues that accompany gender identities, and envisioned these roles as challenging mainstream culture. They included cross-dressing, gender switching, and gender role-play. In “Born this Way: Lesbian Style Since the Eighties” (2013), Vicki Karaminas writes of the influences on sartorial styles throughout this period, including the resurgence of androgyny and the emergence of the lipstick lesbian in the 1990s. Vicki Karaminas’s “Lesbian Style” in 2013 records a historical trajectory of lesbian sartorial choices and subjectivity, as does Reina Lewis in 1997 in “Looking Good: The Lesbian Gaze and Fashion Imagery.”
As we have signaled already, one of the hallmarks of queer style and its attendant literature is the premium placed on the role of performativity. This can be seen in the 1996 work of Cohen, 2000 work of Cole, and in Stephen Gundle’s Glamour: A History, written in 2008. Gundle admits that glamour is hard to define, one reason being that it coalesces around individuals and is not reducible to a formula. The central figure for glamour, performance, and queer style in the postwar era is Andy Warhol. While his art has been the subject of detailed study, his persona cannot be separated from his art. This is the focus of Elisa Glick, writing in 2009, Materializing Queer Desire: Oscar Wilde to Andy Warhol, and Brigitte Weingart’s 2010 piece, “ ‘That Screen Magnetism’: Warhol’s Glamour.” Both concentrate on the elaborate contrivances of queer performances, an allure that was as challenging as it was seductive. Weingart presciently argues that Warholian glamour—in himself and those he chose to immortalize—was extensively, densely mediated through photography and celluloid. Glick notices that Warhol even in his everyday life seemed to be constantly acting for some hypothetical television show. Warhol’s enigmatic identity and the world he cultivated can be read about in numerous biographies, such as by that by Victor Bockris in 2003 and Bob Colacello in 2014. It is also worth turning to Anthony DeCurtis and his 2017 account about some of his most famous members of Warhol’s coterie, such as Lou Reed, whose “Walk on the Wilde Side” is arguably the first mainstream hit to mention cross-dressing explicitly.
With the sexual revolution of the 1970s, it became, in some circles, rather chic to be gay, or to posture as such. Alice Cooper was at the forefront of glam and glitter rock, his name clearly registering something other than the mainstream. Cooper and others such as David Bowie and Iggy Pop presented themselves as marginal but mainstream, playing an important part in the visibility of countercultural groups such as the gay and drag scene. Betty Hillman in 2015 comments on their “kinky spectacles” and recalls that their style was known as “transvestite rock.” Andrew Branch in 2012 argues that such queer masquerade (straight pretending to be queer) was a way of combatting the negative perception of low-class origins through the brazen and the outrageous. Here class antagonism was waged through a filter of unconventional masculinity. The female counterpart at the time was Suzi Quatro. Patti Smith, for her classic album Horses, posed with a suit jacket over her shoulder, in imitation of the Brat Pack crooners of a generation before, like Frank Sinatra. Philip Auslander in 2004 observes that: “She enacts the polymorphusness, undecidability and performativity of identity.”
By the 1980s, the blurring of gender and sexual boundaries had become prevalent throughout a range of entertainment mediums, from fashion to music to television and film. This gender was particularly evident in musician Boy George and performance artist (and fashion designer) Leigh Bowery. Boy George’s androgynous style was a fusion of different cultural references and combined braided and ragged hair, Rastafarian head wraps, traditional hats worn by Hasidic Jews, kimonos, oversized suits, sportswear, and loose-fitting coats. His style deliberately challenged conventional and homogenized dressing by mixing masculine and feminine clothing. Boy George’s autobiographies (one written with Spencer Bright, Take It Like a Man; and another, Straight, written with Paul Gorman) trace his musical career and the club scene in London during the 1980s and 1990s. Similarly, Leigh Bowery’s outrageous dress codes were concerned with manipulating his body to change his appearance and blur gender. He has been credited, along with Boy George, for reinstating the extraverted gay creative persona. For a more comprehensive look at Bowery and his style, see photographer Fergus Greer’s Leigh Bowery Looks, Robert Violette’s Leigh Bowery, and Sue Tilly’s The Life and Times of an Icon.
Queerness and expressions of it are anything that deviates from a normative code. As emphasized in Queer Style by Geczy and Karaminas, the hallmark of “queer” is artificiality. Artificiality comes to a head with the posthuman body. Donna Haraway, as early as 1991, invokes the cyborg in an effort to escape feminist binary discourses and gender biologism. An incarnation that Haraway had not envisaged is the human Barbie and Ken dolls (discussed in detail by Geczy in the Artificial Body in Fashion and Art, 2017), many examples of which can be found on YouTube and Vimeo. In line with Butler, these types are so exaggeratedly of their gender that they twist into what Susan Sontag defines as “camp” in her 1964 article. There is also a growing literature on these biologically mediated types from the 1990s into the twenty-first century by Kate Ince, M. G. Lord, and Jessica Riskin.
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