The Dialect of Dior

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The Language of LGBTQ Fashion

Revolution is not always an institution constructed by pamphlets and pistols. Sometimes the tools of revolution come in the forms of lipstick, stilettos, and maxi skirts. Sometimes you can hold rebellion in a handbag. Some of the most fiercely oppressed classes have molded and made fashion into the ever-evolving, creative revolution is it presently. Faced with a binary, heterosexist world, members of the LGBTQ community stepped from out of the closet and onto the catwalk, weaving fashion statements into a complex language that was spoken by all in their community. Though the law had silenced their mouths, they could not silence their minds.

The history of queer fashion originates as early as the 18th and 19th centuries. According to Valerie Steele, editor of A Queer History of Fashion: From the Closet to the Catwalk and chief curator of the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York City, gays were already expressing interest in finding an outlet to express themselves. Enslaved to the then heterosexual dictatorship that deemed homosexuality to be both a mental illness and a crime for many centuries, the LGBTQ sought for a pilgrimage to a new world. A world of beauty where queer individuals could be themselves freely and openly. This world was in the world of fashion.

With a flame for freedom that could not be extinguished, LGBTQ members began to centralize, creating many underground societies whose chief purpose was to practice the language of LGBTQ fashion. By the eighteenth century, with prejudice towards homosexuality in full swing, many European gay men began to create secret subcultures, such as the “mollies,” cross-dressing men found in public houses and inns.  By the nineteenth century, these same members began to cross-dress privately and sometimes publicly as an act of rebellion towards the rigid confines of heterosexual fashion. During this same century as well as the twentieth century, women adopted this rebellious act as well, dressing as men in social functions to protest against the status of women and their subservient roles in a patriarchal society.

However, prior to the gay liberation movement of the 1960s, most of their songs for revolution were sang with silent voices. Because legislation and civilization were constructed around the homophobic mindset, LGBTQ members had to use the language of fashion in a  more subtle, eccentric way as to not be recognized by the heterosexual community. For instance, during the Victorian era from which Oscar Wilde hailed, a green carnation was considered a signifier of a gay man. The color green itself was seen as effeminate and even sodomitical and continued to be seen this way until the twentieth century.

Fashion became the language and lifestyle of many influential designers of the LGBTQ community, such as Michael Kors and Christian Dior. The outline of this incredibly complex, enriching history can now be found in John Katz’s comprehensive book on LGBTQ fashion, Queer History of Fashion. From its fledgling beginning within the dingy halls of a London public house to the worldwide event of Christian Dior’s Spring 2017 Couture Collection within the gardens of the Musée Rodin, Katz beautifully narrates the legends of superheroes who overcame the world’s prejudice and pride with mascara and bow ties. This book has now materialized into a complete exhibit at the Fashion Institute of Technology that bears the same name.

Through centuries of oppression, the LGBTQ community has remained the ethereal rainbow amidst the darkness of ignorance. Through their quiet rebellion, the LGBTQ were able to teach us that not only does fashion have no gender, but love does not either.