‘But you hate these clothes!’ The complicated history of ‘lesbian fashion’

‘When it comes to lesbians, clothes can shape our place in the world,’ says fashion historian Eleanor Medhurst. “They can allow us to be recognized by others in our community, or allow us to be hidden from the world at large.”

She takes the example of Christina, Queen of Sweden in the 17th century. Although Christina’s sexuality remains ambiguous, there is evidence that she felt romantic feelings towards women. Her clothing choices speak to some lesbians today, including Medhurst, in the way she went with stereotypes. “She would play with gender through her self-expression,” says Medhurst. “She often, throughout her life, mixed masculine and feminine clothing,” wearing men’s shoes, shirts and vests, as well as elaborate women’s dresses and skirts.

Christina is just one of the subjects of Medhurst’s new book, Unsuitable: A History of Lesbian Fashion, which traces the variety of clothes worn by lesbian women throughout history – often hiding their personal lives or dismissing their romantic relationships. as friendship.

The women of the bar include Le Monocle lesbians in 1920s Paris, whose styles ranged from tuxedos and ties to dresses and gowns set in a finger wave. So is drag king Stormé DeLarverie, who some say first wore punk at the 1969 Stonewall uprising, and who would often wear tailored suits to performances or leather jackets in his other job as a bouncer. Medway explores the styles of people who were lesbians or who might be in touch with today’s LGBTQ+ community, even if such labels did not exist in their time.

It comes at a time when “lesbian fashion” is making a comeback in the mainstream. That fashion is as diverse as the lesbian community itself, but one possible definition is clothing that is stereotypically worn or lesbian-inspired, often breaking gender expectations. In May, Kristen Stewart, who Medhurst describes as the “lesbian-chic leader of the 2020s”, donned tank tops and sports bras in the lesbian thriller Love Lies Bleeding. In February, the New York Times celebrated Kallmeyer’s fashion label, popular for its suits and boats, as serving “lesbian chic, for everyone”. Lesbian and queer fashion has been seen from musicians Muna to Young MA and Reneé Rapp to the recent BBC lesbian drama series I Kissed A Girl, which featured statement boots, rings and snapbacks. The raunchy satirical film Bottoms, starring Ayo Edebiri, serves up stereotypical lesbian staples – corduroy trousers, dungarees and flannel shirts.

“Lesbians are having a bit of a cultural moment,” says Medhurst, who has had her own part. After setting up her blog Dressing Dykes during the pandemic, her TikTok account now has more than 100,000 followers.

But the history of “lesbian fashion” is complicated. Clothing worn by lesbians has not always been considered cool by wider society. Often, the way lesbians dress, especially those who wear masculine clothing, is seen as unfashionable, a point of intrigue or just plain ugly. In Medhurst’s book, she explores the life of Anne Lister in the 19th century, who has been called “the first modern lesbian”, who wore black shrugs and black – considered a masculine color at the time – alongside bonnets and ribbons. Lister’s appearance was not liked by all her contemporaries: she was insultingly referred to as “Gentleman Jack” – the nickname later used as the title of a BBC drama about her life.

“Lesbian fashion has gone in and out of mainstream fashion,” says Medhurst. In the late 19th century, male impersonators flourished in Victorian Britain and the United States; not all of them were lesbian, but maybe some of them were. Drag queen Annie Hindle had at least one unofficial marriage to another woman. In the 1920s, lesbian couple Dorothy Todd and Madge Garland brought queer influences to British Vogue as editor and fashion editor respectively; Virginia Woolf and Vita Sackville-West were among the participants.

In the spring of 1993, the term “lesbian chic” was emblazoned on the front cover of New York magazine, along with a portrait of a sauve-looking kd lang, the Canadian musician and lesbian icon. Later that year, Lang would pose in a three-piece suit on the front cover of the Vanity Fairsitting in a barber’s chair with supermodel Cindy Crawford, wearing a bathing suit, pretending to shave her face.

However, the commodification of lesbian looks has not always come with the approval of lesbians themselves. In a blog post on the concept of “lesbian chic”, from lang to the TV drama The L Word, Medhurst cites lesbian critics who hit back at the sanitized representations of lesbians in the mainstream of the 90s, which avoided the full diversity of the lesbian aesthetic i. in favor of the more airbrushed versions: models that were generally white, slim and without body hair.

The whole concept of “lesbian chic” feels off to some lesbians”, says Medhurst, “because the clothes they were wearing are seen as unfashionable, anti-fashionable and ugly. Now, suddenly, they’re great and they’re good. So there’s that aspect of being like: ‘Oh, but you hate these clothes!’” Some are still critical of seeing stereotypical accessories – from carbs to practical footwear – in the mainstream, while others embrace it. .

But today at least there is more diversity, although it is not yet complete, in terms of what it means to look like or be a lesbian, from fat to high-feminine, and the cultural life lesbians also include trans, bisexual and queer identities. .

While Medhurst understands the frustrations of some lesbians, she thinks there are benefits as well. “A lot of the stereotypes of lesbian style are practical or comfortable … I think there’s a really important positive aspect to those involved in mainstream women’s fashion, because historically women have been encouraged not to wear comfortable or practical clothes .”

Ultimately, lesbian fashion offers “ways in which we can play with gender roles, categories of sexuality, ways we are or are not allowed to be,” says Medhurst. For some lesbians, and the LGBTQ+ community in general, clothing is a vital form of self-expression; it is a means of expressing identity to the world, discreetly or overtly. As Medhurst concludes: “Fashion is often thought of as frivolous. But it is very important, personally and politically.”

Inappropriate: A History of Lesbian Fashion, by Eleanor Medhurst is out now (Hurst Publishers)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *