Fashion & Style
‘‘A Queer History of Fashion: From the Closet to the Catwalk,’’ a new exhibit at the Museum at F.I.T., includes the lilac jacket of the British aesthete Bunny Roger, center.
By SUZY MENKES
NEW YORK — It was called “the love that dared not speak its name” when the artistic and flamboyant Oscar Wilde was vilified for his sexual persuasion at the end of the 19th century.
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The exhibit ranges from 19th century London to the same-sex marriage era of today.
But long before the gay pride marches, the pumped-up bodies on the streets of San Francisco’s Castro district and same-sex marriage, homosexuality was absorbed into the language of clothes.
From the aesthetic frills worn to the so-called “molly” clubs in 19th-century London, through the flamboyant silken bathrobe of the playwright and composer Noël Coward to the lilac jacket of the British aesthete Bunny Roger and Liberace’s flamboyant folderals, men of a certain persuasion dressed to suit.
Women also were engaged in the same aesthetic, like those who frequented the notorious lesbian bars in Paris in the 1920s, or Marlene Dietrich in her sexually ambivalent, masculine pantsuits.
“There is no one queer style — this is an alternative history of fashion,” says Valerie Steele, director and curator of The Museum at F.I.T., as the institution at the Fashion Institute of Technology is known.
For the museum, Ms. Steele and Fred Dennis have curated “A Queer History of Fashion: From the Closet to the Catwalk,” which is to open Friday and run through Jan. 4.
It is a ground-breaking effort, exploring for the first time on museum territory the influence and origins of a subculture defined as LGBTQ — Lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer.
“It may be the most important exhibition we have ever done — something that hasn’t been talked about that will change how people think of fashion,” says Ms. Steele.
“Gays have been hidden from fashion history because it was illegal for so long and stigmatized as a mental illness.”
“Even today, people are reluctant to talk about it,” continues the historian. “Fashion has been a site of cultural production for gay people for 300 years and gay culture has huge impact on fashion history.”
The museum’s journey reflects not just the long process of bringing a guilty secret into the open, but the triumph and tragedy of that trajectory. AIDS struck just as the secrets were being revealed and male bodies flexed provocatively after the watershed moment in the United States of the 1969 Stonewall riots, when drag queens and gays were still harassed by the authorities.
The exhibition starts with 18th century costumes for the foppish “mollies” and “macaronis” (including a modern pastiche of that look by Vivienne Westwood) and ends with his-and-his suits for a gay marriage.
Mr. Dennis describes AIDS, first recognized in the early 1980s, as the ‘’breaking point of show” and says that it is important for younger people to know their past.
In retrospect, the early years seem innocent, even the flamboyance of Liberace’s silken scarlet robes, or the lilac Bunny Roger jacket. Who could imagine that after that joyous flaunting that homosexuality would again be engulfed by a dark side?
Hamish Bowles, the American Vogue editor at large who is also a collector of historic fashion, bought the Roger mauve masterpiece and points out that certain colors or particular fabrics were used from early on to convey discreet or secret messages of sexuality.
“Suede shoes in the 1920s, red neckties in the 1950s — and, of course, the green carnations,” says Mr. Bowles, referring to the Wilde symbol during the 19th-century aesthetic movement.
The exhibition has a grouping of elegant outfits by gay designers from Cristóbal Balenciaga, through Pierre Balmain, Christian Dior to Yves Saint Laurent, even though most of them did not “come out” at the time.
Ms. Steele says that the curative duo has not “outed” those who have not publicly acknowledged their preference. The AIDS section pays tribute to designers like Perry Ellis and Halston who died in that period. There is also a piece by Geoffrey Beene for the 1989 Love Ball, an AIDS fund-raiser in New York, displayed beside an outfit of the Italian designer Moschino.
The AIDS section is mostly a long line of T-shirts that either carry activist comments or are presented as hazard warnings, as freedom in the 1980s was struck by what was called the gay “plague’.
There was no doubting the sexual orientation of the designers Jean Paul Gaultier and Gianni Versace, both of whom have bold sections in the second half of the show. In this area, focused on gender taboos, the exhibition looks not just at the peacock male, but on the sexual subculture of clothes for both sexes: those iconic Gaultier cone-shaped bra tops and the Versace fetish leather.
The hard, body-conscious pieces seemed to fly a black leather flag over a world when sexual provocation and deviation had become acceptable.
If the display sounds titillating rather than erudite, it is given depth in the long descriptions and in the multiauthor book with the exhibition’s title, using gay history scholars and published by Yale University Press.
The display itself is by the New York architect Joel Sanders, author of the 1996 book “Stud: Architectures of Masculinity.” A two-day symposium on “A Queer History of Fashion” will be held Nov. 8 and 9 and an educational Web site is planned to bring the subject to a global audience.
The exhibition could have made more of multimedia to show the current gay pride parades and the more sinister gay bashing that still goes on, in Russia for example.
Perhaps the show’s strongest point is that it is punctuated with visual question marks.
Were those mannish pantsuits worn by Ms. Dietrich, on loan from the Berlin Film Museum, and other female performing artists symbols of sexual orientation?
Is it true, as Ms. Steele suggests, that homosexuality as a specific group only appeared after the slow breakdown of a feudal class system, when men at the apex of society thought it natural to penetrate either sex?
And above all, could there be a storybook ending? The exhibition closes, as it was bound to do, with a traditional vision of gay marriage: all happy couples, openly united, at last, in modern society.
The fashion story ends not on a flamboyant but on an ordinary note: a pair in suits. Nothing queer about that. Yet for all that the exhibition is wide-ranging in its subject, there is still that underlying sense of bravado and uncertainty that follows the costumes from the first defiant frills to the last wedding attire.
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