“A Queer History of Fashion: From the Closet to the Catwalk,” now on view at the Museum at FIT, is a groundbreaking exhibition that explores the significant contributions to fashion made by LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer) individuals over the past 300 years. In the show, there are approximately 100 ensembles, from 18th century menswear styles that are associated with an emerging gay subculture, to 21st century high fashion. The exhibition is currently running through Jan. 4, 2014.
You will find fashions from Christian Dior to Yves Saint Laurent, Jean Paul Gaultier and Alexander McQueen. The importance of gay men in the fashion world in the 20th century is undeniable. However, scholars have demonstrated that as early as the 1700s, gay men were pioneers in challenging sex and gender roles. Drawing on this research, this exhibit is organized chronologically, beginning with the 18th century, when cross-dressing and male milliners created controversy.
Curators Fred Dennis and Valerie Steele put this exhibition together, working with an advisory committee of eminent scholars, as well as faculty and fashion professionals. “This is about honoring the gay and lesbian designers of the past and present,” said Dennis. “By acknowledging their contributions of fashion, we want to encourage people to embrace diversity.”
“We also hope that [this] exhibition will transform our understanding of fashion history,” added Steele. “For many years, gays and lesbians were hidden from history. By acknowledging the historic influence of gay designers and by emphasizing the important role that fashion and style have played within the LGBTQ community, we see how central gay culture has been to the creation of modern fashion.”
Oscar Wilde was a key 19th century figure in the histories of homosexuality, literature and style. Elite menswear looks became an important stylistic signifier for lesbians in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The garçonne look of the 1920s brought lesbian style into high fashion. Several extraordinary 1930s menswear worn by the great bisexual actress Marlene Dietrich have been made available for this exhibition from the Berlin Film Museum. Yves Saint Laurent’s iconic Le Smoking look, inspired by Dietrich’s tuxedo, is also featured in the display.
Nevertheless, not all lesbians and bisexual women gravitated toward tailored suits. On display, you will see a lovely lavender dress worn by lesbian actress Katharine Cornell and a body-wrapping dress designed by the great couturiere Madeleine Vionnet, who told Bruce Chatwin, “They always said I loved women too much.”
By the 1930s, identifiable gay or bisexual male designers played a significant role in fashion. It wasn’t until the 1960s that a more openly gay look began to influence “mod” menswear styles. In New York City, the Stonewall riots, which took place on June 28, 1969, marked the beginning of a more open movement.
“A Queer History of Fashion: From the Closet to the Catwalk” includes a wide range of street and subcultural styles associated with the LGBTQ community. The AIDS crisis marks a pivotal midpoint in the exhibition. Clothing by a number of designers who died of AIDS, including Halston, Perry Ellis and Bill Robinson, are featured.
The exhibition is worth a trip to the Museum at FIT.